Tuesday, September 27, 2011
I have been carrying a growing inquisitiveness to find out about the conditions that led to the phenomenal growth of the church in the First Century.
I love this quote from Rodney Stark, a secular historian who has tried to answer this very same question:
How did a tiny and obscure messianic movement from the edge of the Roman Empire dislodge classical paganism and become the dominant faith of Western civilisation?
Reading a theology book (Family in the Bible) for the second time in preparation for remitting an academic review of it, I kept coming across footnotes about this Stark book. I hadn't come across it before so last month I read it from cover to cover. Its compulsive reading for anyone interested in the growth of the church and/or with a social science background, as I do (Geography). Stark outlines a conservative estimate of 40 per cent growth per decade in the numbers of Christians and admits that he comes to this figure without any space for signs, wonders and the miraculous. There seems to have been a remarkable increase in figures between 250 and 300 and this is borne out in archaeological evidence of houses being remodelled to fit more worshippers in. It’s interesting to note at this period that persecution had increased under several Roman Emperors most notably Valerian in 253 but by 311 this lessened, culminating in Constantine’s edict of toleration in 313. So from this there may be a lesson for us today: as persecution increased the church grew rapidly, then the governmental leaders realised that they needed the Christians onside (in 311, Galerius realised he needed the Christians to pray for the security of the state).
Most interestingly of all is the evidence for growth well in excess of 40pc per decade that has come to light in Egypt – extraordinary and miraculous growth is shown in the numbers of Christian converts in Egypt (from 0pc Christian in Egypt to 18 pc, in 65 years) – people changed their names to Christian names and this was tracked on papyri.
So 40 pc per decade in the growth of Christianity is called a conservative, given that very few actual records exist. The reality was that vast numbers must have been added at some stages AND the reality was that this thing spread geographically. Imagine what that would look like for your church. But more than that, for your region/area. These numbers were for society as a whole. Sure we have growing churches today, but for every growing one, how many are declining or shutting? This was true societal transformation.
What factors contributed to this?Sociological study on the growth of the Moonies (stay with me!!) – a cult – all of the converts in the study were united by close ties of friendship or kinship e.g. next door neighbours, mothers of similar ages, friends from work.
And so here lies a key principle in reaching families: for conversion to happen, people have or develop stronger attachments to Christians than they have to non-members of Christianity. There is a very interesting sociological principle here on conformity, which is outlined in the book. Suffice to say: strong friendships with Christian group members results in conversions. Simple.
And here we get to the crux of it for us – households. Each member of a household unit has unparalleled opportunities to attract other people into the faith that they hold dear through each of their networks. Note I said networks, not just one's own family. There is no single term for family in the NT.
Oikos, meaning house or household, included the householders family, slaves, and through their network of relationships, friends and neighbours. This was the major network in Rome and when Christianity grew using the same pattern of relating oikos – the exponential growth happened. Those looking in saw tremendous change and reorientation.
So what about talking about ministry to households if the word "family" has negative or painful connotations for people? We have more one or two person households in this country than at any point in history. We have broken ourselves down into smaller and smaller units, therefore I wonder if there is a rise in people looking for "oikos" - community through their networks. And you know what, churches don't just need the keen beans in their 20s pre-children with more time on their hands, churches need business people, teenagers, retired people, parents of young children, empty-nesters, kids.... - for this to really be all it could be means it needs every one. As Banning Liebscher said: don't think revival if going to come through the young. If you have breath in your body, God wants to use you.
Household transformation in the first few centuries - I wonder if I can describe how radical the shift was.
In first century Graeco-Roman times, the man held power over everyone’s possessions in the whole household – he was the paterfamilias. You may not be surprised to know that the Roman Empire had demographic challenges. There was a low birthrate due to abortion and infanticide which was readily practised. Fathers had the right to speak life or death over every newborn child and male children were favoured. There were far more men than women due to the practice of killing newborn females. Children had no status, childhood was seen as something to be grown out of, to just get through into adulthood and full legal status (under Roman law).
Christianity directly impacted the quality of life for wives and mothers. Is it any wonder that women turned to Christianity in vast numbers? Christian teaching directly confronted :
We cannot underestimate the sociological change this brought about. There was an increase in women’s status, standing and security. In the first few centuries there are numerous examples of noble Roman women bringing their husbands to faith. Christian women enjoyed far greater marital security and equality than pagan women – this was attractive to others to see. This drew people to the church.
People often say to me: there was so much about children in the Gospels, what happened in Acts? Acts sees the power of the Holy Spirit poured out which propels the church forward; Jesus words elevating children were the necessary platform for the move of God throughout households in Acts. I wrote a little more about this here, please do read in conjunction with this post if you have time.
So to see a return to household transformation requires:
1.a return to releasing each other to be “fully present” in our networks of friends, families and neighbours instead of always out at meetings. Or maybe even (shock horror) cutting our work hours.... Stop being so bloomin' busy!
2.A deliberate strategy to build attractive models of oikos in our local churches – and may I suggest that at least some of these ways encompass all of the generations........I had an amazing journey with this between 2006 and 2008.
More in the next post.
Acknowledgement: Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the nt Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (Princeton University Press/Harper Collins, 1996/1997).