A question: what do secular movements like the revolutions in the Middle East and the protests against Wall Street have to do with the growth and spread of Christianity?
I've read accounts of what's going on in our world and wondered. Here's some of what I've concluded: these movements began when someone, deeply committed to a cause, starts to rally those closest to him or her to action. Using Twitter, Facebook, texting or old fashioned word of mouth, the cause spread from one person to another along already established social and relational networks. Movements spread like viruses, going from person to person, among those who are in close contact with one another -- a friend connects with a friend who connects with a friend.
According to Dr. Rodney Stark in his books The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal, Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force and the just released The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World's Largest Religion, that's how Christianity spread in the first three hundred years following Christ.
Dr. Stark says by 40AD the movement Jesus founded had only about 1,000 followers. By 300AD the number of Jesus followers had grown to around 6,000,000, or about 10% of the Roman Empire. Never has any movement--social, religious, or political--achieved such a rapid advance in the dominant culture without the aid of a military force! How did this happen?
The book of Acts tells the story of the growth of the early church. Much of Acts focuses on Paul and his missionary activities. While we usually think of folks like Paul as being responsible for the spread of Christianity, according to Dr. Stark the spread of Christianity didn't depend upon religious professionals so much as on ordinary folk who shared their faith with family, friends and neighbors (you can catch a glimpse of this happening in Acts 11:19-26),
Dr. Stark writes:
Christianity was spread, not so much by the professionals, but by ordinary people whose names and deeds are not recorded. Christian conversions followed networks of relationships. Missionaries often led the way making initial contacts. Once some insiders were converted, they became the key to the gospel spreading throughout the rest of the social network.The Roman authorities attempted to halt the expansion of Christianity by targeting its leadership. Men like Peter and Paul were arrested, imprisoned and executed. But that didn't stop the rapid, widespread growth of Christianity for it was a movement of the people, not the professionals!
[T]he spread of religious movements is not accomplished by dramatic events and persuasive preachers, but by ordinary followers who convert their equally anonymous friends, relatives and neighbors.
We can find something very much like the growth of the early church happening in China today. Despite decades of religious persecution, the church in China is growing and spreading. The communist government tried to stop it by expelling missionaries and arresting and imprisoning pastors, but the church continued to grow because it was a movement of ordinary people.
Christianity conquered the Roman world without a strategic plan, without an organizational structure, without access to significant resources, without academic institutions, and without a professionalized clergy. How? Ordinary people, on fire with the love of Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, told their families, friends, and casual acquaintances what God had done for them. There are many factors that influence a person's decision to become a Christ follower, but the most important factor seems to be a close and positive relationship with another committed Christ follower.
In my last few blog entries I've focused our attention on the concept of movements, wondering what it would take for there to be a spiritual, transformative movement of God spreading across our city like a wildfire. For there to be a movement of God do we need to call a group of pastors together, write a vision statement, develop a strategic plan, then figure out how we are going to fund it? I don't think so. There's nothing wrong with that approach, and it may help. But whether there is a strategic plan in place or not, the only thing that really matters is this -- as Christ's followers we must be deeply surrendered to him, and then just begin sharing our faith with our those closest to us -- family, friends and neighbors. If this simply formula can be used to topple governments and change social policies, surely it can be used to bring Christ to our world.
For those interested in more books by Dr. Stark, just click here. It will take you to Amazon.com. Not only will you have access to Dr. Stark's books, but UBA will receive a little income on everything you purchase using this link. Other books you might consider are:
Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome
The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy