The Forgotten Ways

“About four years ago I attended a seminar on missional church where the speaker asked a question. “How many Christians do you think there were in the year AD 100?” He then asked, “How many Christians do you think there were just before Constantine came on the scene, say AD 310?” Here is the somewhat surprising answer.

AD 100     as few as 25,000 Christians
AD 310     up to 20,000,000 Christians

He then asked the question that has haunted me to this day: “How did they do this? How did they grow from being a small movement to the most significant religious force in the Roman Empire in two centuries? Now that’s a question to initiate a journey! And delving into this question drove me to the discovery of what I will call Apostolic Genius (the built-in life force and guiding mechanism of God’s people) and the living components or elements that make it up. These components I have tagged missional  DNA, or mDNA, for short.

So let me ask you the question — how did the early Christians do it? And before you respond, here are some qualifications you must factor into your answer.

  • They were an illegal religion throughout this period. At best, they were tolerated; at the very worst they were very severely persecuted
  • They didn’t have any church buildings as we know them. While archeologist have discovered chapels dating from this period, they were definitely exceptions to the rule, and they tended to be very small converted houses.
  • They didn’t even have the scriptures as we know them. They were putting the canon together during this period.
  • They didn’t have an institution or the professional form of leadership normally associated with it. At times of relative calm, prototypical elements of institution did appear, but by what we consider institutional, these were at best pre-institutional.
  • They didn’t have seeker-sensitive services, youth groups, worship bands, seminaries, commentaries, etc.
  • They actually made it hard to join the church. By the late second century, aspiring converts had to undergo a significant initiation period to prove they were worthy.”

Before the example of the early Christian movement can be dismissed as a freak of history, there are other examples of remarkable Christian growth through out history.  When Communism took hold in mainline China, it was estimated that there were about 2 million Christians. After decades of persecution via death and imprisonment, today’s Chinese church is estimated to have as many as 80 million members.

“By the end of John Wesley’s life one in thirty English men and women had become Methodists. In 1776 fewer than 2 percent of the American population were Methodists. By 1850 the movement claimed 34 percent of the population. How did they do it? The twentieth century saw the rise of Pentacostalism as one of the most rapidly growing missionary movements  in the history of the church. The movement has grown  from humble beginnings in the early 1900s to 400 million by the end of the twentieth century. It is estimated that by 2050 Pentecostalism will have one billion adherents worldwide.  How did they do it?”

–excerpts taken from the introduction of The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch

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The above is taken from this great book I’m reading that I find to be partly about strategic church growth and partly devotional. The author investigates the sociological elements of these explosive Christian movements and how to duplicate them.

I’m about half way through the book now and the main thing I’m coming away from it with is that there is a significant difference between growing Christianity (a movement) and growing a Church (an institution).

One of the things that has challenged me the most is the idea that only about 20-30% of the US population may have any interest in going to a church to learn more about Christianity.  So no matter what we do to improve how we “do” church, we’re still only tickling the ears of a small portion of our culture if church services are our driving method of evangelism.

I’d be really interested to hear an LDS perspective on this book. On the one hand it challenges the Mormon story of Christianity.  It highlights the rapid growth of Christianity (without a valid priesthood) and points to the lack of a central insitution and correlation as one of the reasons it grew and prospered.  On the other I think some of the things the Mormons have done are in line with what he finds as keys to success (“every member a missionary” and a constant push to expand to the edges of ward boundaries).

If any LDS have read this book, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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9 thoughts on “The Forgotten Ways

  1. Tim, Thanks for the post, I find this topic fascinating. There are lot of topics brought up here.

    I don’t think Mormons really have many of the details of early Christianity sorted out. Mainly our explanations are arrived at by simply making assumptions based on the fact that their was a restoration rather than actually looking at what happened.

    As far as rapid growth is concerned. I think the Mormon faith is a much harder sell than Evangelical christianity, There almost has to be some sort of Christian knowledge in the community in order to make it grow fast. I think Mormons have essentially ridden the coattails of other christian missionary movements over the past couple of centuries and I expect they will do that in China as well.

    There is more to say but I will have to wait…

  2. I don’t think Mormons really have many of the details of early Christianity sorted out. Mainly our explanations are arrived at by simply making assumptions based on the fact that their was a restoration rather than actually looking at what happened.

    Yes, the need for a restoration has been sold quite well without the historical facts actually backing it up too well. (I guess the same could be said of the Book of Mormon)

    There almost has to be some sort of Christian knowledge in the community in order to make it grow fast. I think Mormons have essentially ridden the coattails of other christian missionary movements over the past couple of centuries and I expect they will do that in China as well.

    I agree. What’s really interesting to me is that while the Mormon church is expectantly waiting for China to open up so that Chinese converts can be gained. The Evangelical church is expectantly waiting for China to open up so that the Chinese Evangelicals can help us grow (especially in Muslim countries).

    Interested to hear your other thoughts.

  3. I don’t think it conflicts with the Mormon narrative in the slightest. An accepted part of the Mormon narrative was that God needed humanity to hold a candle until the full light of the Restored Gospel could burst forth. Traditional Christianity filled that role. For which we should be truly grateful.

    And by the way…

    We don’t “expand” ward boundaries. We subdivide.

  4. I agree that the account conflicts with the Mormon narrative. I think there is plenty of evidence of confusion of doctrine and change of ordinances and practices and syncretism of beliefs, etc.

    According to revelation, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was not formed and brought forth to be the end-all beat-all of churches, but to perform certain tasks and a marvelous work to prepare for the second coming and gather the “Elect” the other churches, the spread of Christianity outside the church is all part of the plan and fits in the narrative, even though they have been maligned by some within the Church.

    My father just finished a 3 year mission as a mission president in Guatemala. It was interesting to hear his accounts. According to him, the church could be “growing” much faster, but there is a concerted effort by many to essentially slow down baptisms and focus on teaching and building dedicated membership. I think this shows a different focus by LDS than evangelicals. I think it shows that the church is not really a vehicle for “saving” people really. I think members of the church should see themselves as called to to something important for the worlds as disciples rather than as simple members of the body of Christ (which I believe contains all of those who claim to follow Jesus).

    As for how to spread religion and why evangelicalism spreads so fast, there are naturalistic explanations, i.e. the Evangelical “meme” is more contagious than others, it appeals to deep human needs, at least enough to be adopted and taught. I think it generally does not take as much effort to become an evangelical as a Mormon, after all you are not expected to “work” for “salvation.”

    See Daniel.C. Dennett, for one philosopher’s take on why religion in general and perhaps some religions in particular spread in his book, Breaking the Spell

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breaking_the_Spell

  5. Actually the book makes the argument that Western Evangelicalism isn’t growing all that fast and that we need to look at what others have done so that we will grow.

    “salvation not by works” is not a selling point for growth’s sake.

  6. Sorrry, my previous post should say, I “don’t” think that the history conflicts with the Mormon narrative….

  7. As far as growth is concerned, I would agree that Christianity including both Western Evangelicalism and Mormonism are not on the top of the list. , think of Falun Gong it started in 1992 and now has over 100 million adherents by some accounts. Despite massive persecution.

  8. I think a rigorous system of ethics, demands upon the adherent, and a strong sense of identity against an overarching culture that is seen as somehow oppressive are all factors that can contribute to a robust and growing religion.

  9. I don’t think this conflicts with the account of an apostasy at all. The church structure may not have been perfectly cemented but certainly all in the time of the epistles recognized the authority of the apostles ( especially John and James). Moreover, it is my view that what we know as the great apostasy began when religious authority became subordinate and dependent on the political authority of Rome culminating in political leaders taking the papacy and other church positions.

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