“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
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.