The early church did something right! In the span of just three centuries Christianity grew from a small band of believers from a provincial backwater to the leading faith of the Roman Empire. Historians and missions experts have long marveled at this rapid transformation. How did it happen? Could it be repeated?
Obviously, from a Christian perspective the growth of the Church was and is the work of the Holy Spirit. But by what means did the Holy Spirit move in the early church?
For many years, historians have held the view that Christianity grew because its message of hope, future liberation and equality of all people resonated with the oppressed and poor comprising the greater part of the Roman Empire. But Baylor University sociologist Rodney Stark argues that such a view does not square with the historical data.
In his book Cities of God, Stark employs historical quantitative analysis to show that, contrary to popular opinion and expectation, Christianity did not achieve its remarkable growth by reaching the rural peasantry. Instead, Christianity’s primary growth came as it attracted unusual numbers of literate and educated people living in major urban centers.
[blockquote_left][blockquote_message]If the goal is to ‘make disciples of all nations,’ missionaries need to go where there are many potential converts, which is precisely what Paul did. — Rodney Stark [/blockquote_message][/blockquote_left]
Stark writes, “If the goal is to ‘make disciples of all nations,’ missionaries need to go where there are many potential converts, which is precisely what Paul did. His missionary journeys took him to major cities… No mention is made of him preaching in the countryside… Any study of how Christians converted the empire is really a study of how they Christianized the cities.”
According to Stark, prior views of how Christianity spread were the result of hypothetical assumptions without reference to concrete data. However, analysis of archaeological data upends the conventional wisdom. In addition, analyses of early Christian literature and studies of first century churches like the one in Corinth reveal that the early church included a surprisingly large percentage of people from the higher, more educated social classes.
In the modern era, centuries of almost exclusive missionary focus in rural areas has failed to produce national transformation on the scale achieved by the early Christian church. The faulty understanding of how the early church grew may be partly responsible for the limited success of primarily rural-oriented approaches.
Nevertheless, in recent years there are increasing signs that Christian missions is starting to rediscover its urban roots. By God’s grace, CMI has been privileged to be on the front end of this new urban wave of missions for more than three decades.
This new wave holds great hope for seeing the discipleship of nations. Early apostles and missionaries like Saint Paul sparked the transformation of the Roman Empire by reaching its urban centers when only 5% of the population lived in cities.
Today, more than 50% of the world’s population lives in cities. If we would more vigorously follow the urban approach of the early Christians, what might the Holy Spirit accomplish in our day?