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?
My granddaughter Kara just returned from a trip to Nicaragua with her college choir and was stunned by poverty unlike any she ever experienced. During a visit to a small hospital in Managua they saw patients crowded into rooms that held 10 at a time, many on beds without sheets. Particularly distressing was the realization that despite such deplorable conditions these were the “lucky” ones able even to receive care.
Our hearts cannot help but be burdened by such stories, but what is the answer? Years ago, I was on a trip to South America that similarly awakened me to the tremendous poverty in our world. I was overwhelmed by it. I could not imagine any amount of money ever addressing such an ocean of need.
Through a friend I came to recognize that there was no human solution. The one and only hope to the crises of our world is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This is not blind faith. The pains of this world stem from a spiritual cancer in the heart of every person—rich and poor alike. The gospel not only diagnoses this disease, but provides the cure that heals past, present and future.
[blockquote_left]The gospel gives significance and meaning to our past hurts. Through Christ, suffering will not just be recompensed, but redeemed.[/blockquote_left]The gospel gives significance and meaning to our past hurts. Through Christ, suffering will not just be recompensed, but redeemed. It will be swallowed up into a greater glory—and in some miraculous way will increase the joy of eternity. The hint of this is seen in the cross. Christ’s sufferings not only brought our healing, but increased His glory. So it will be with all suffering. It won’t just be forgotten, but filled with real purpose and real value.
The gospel gives the present life purpose. Social programs and government policies can never address the root issue of the heart. Only the love of Christ can penetrate our souls and prompt us to truly love our neighbors. The gospel propels us to begin living the Kingdom of God here and now. In Latin America more wealth is concentrated among fewer people than almost anywhere in the world. How will these resources ever be unleashed to meet the needs of the Latin people unless the love of Christ softens hardened hearts? And how will hearts be softened if they do not hear the gospel?
Finally, the gospel provides lasting hope for the future. It is a hope not in some spiritualized eternity disconnected from the material world, but a future where this very world is healed and restored to its created purpose. A future of perfect peace where love and justice reign.
During their visit to the hospital, Kara and the choir sang for the patients. One song in particular expressed the gospel hope for that future day when all things will be set right. As they sang, an emaciated teenage AIDS patient looked up to heaven, his eyes brightened and joy broke out on his face. The gospel—its promise for the future, its joy in the present and its grace for the past—found holy expression.
Spiritually, the world suffers just like that young boy. But the gospel infuses past, present and future with meaning and power. With such a message of hope, how can we not give everything we have to proclaiming it (maybe even singing it) to our world in need?
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