Have you ever watched a documentary about a well-known company that started out small? Isn’t it inspiring to see someone start in their garage with a dream and see it expand into a company that’s recognized worldwide? Sociologists are always enamored with understanding how these things come to be. How do ideas catch fire?
This blog is not about the explosive growth of companies. Rather, we are interested in better understanding our heritage as Christians. Even if you are not a history buff, you might be interested in knowing more about how Christianity grew so quickly in the first three centuries.
What was the secret sauce that led to Christianity growing so rapidly that even sociologists are baffled?
The answer may not be what you think…
While many companies that have an inspiring story utilizing marketing techniques or state-of-the-art distribution processes, Christianity has a different story altogether.
First of all, early Christians recognized themselves as being the fulfillment of God’s promises through the Jewish people (as we have written about previously). They surely were doing something “new,” but only new in the context of how a new chapter continues the story that preceded it. In essence, Jesus was not starting a “new religion.” Instead, He ignited His followers to be what God promised His people would be in the end times.
The way of Jesus was one where the whole intention of God’s Law was realized, showcasing how to live as redeemed humans. When Jesus taught and modeled what it meant to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18; Matt 22:39; Jas 2:8) for example, the early Christians took that seriously. Their whole lifestyle was reoriented around self-giving love.
For the early Christians, the teachings of Jesus were not just slogans to subscribe to; they were a constitution which compelled their very lifestyle.
Sociologists recognize that Christianity grew at a rate of approximately 40% per decade. This is mind-boggling. Sociologists estimate that in AD 40 there were about 1,000 Christians. Then we get to AD 350, where there were as many as 34 million Christians in the known world!
Within three centuries Christianity went from 0.000015% of the population (not even 1%) to more than half of the Roman Empire! How did they do it? As we have said, there were radical changes in their lifestyle.
The early Christians’ method can be summarized with one word: Compassion.
In the ancient world, there was no such thing as government welfare. So, what did you do when you were down and out with no way to climb out of your miserable situation? (Think of a widow or an orphan or someone who was extremely poor). One would only hope that someone would have enough pity to give you bread to make it through the day.
But this was not what the Christians did. Amazingly, the early Christians pioneered the way for a society to have social reform and change, but not through the means of policy and legislation, but by being the means—by being the hands and feet of Jesus. This is what it means to be the Church—which is a key part of our DNA at Newbreak!
“Christianity served as a revitalization movement that arose in response to the misery, chaos, fear and brutality of life in the urban Greco-Roman world.… [That it] revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent urban problems. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.”
—Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 161.
Do we see how radical and revolutionary the practical faith of the early church was? Any society that has developed a sense of welfare has only done so by taking after the model example of the Christians. In this way:
Christians didn’t just make a difference in the world, they made the world a different place.
But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some brethren to the rulers of the city, crying out, “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too.” (Acts 17:6, NKJV)
As already stated, compassion was the method of the early church. Ultimately, it can be summarized as compassion for the poor and compassion for the discarded.
Compassion for the poor characterized the early church.
We actually have a letter from the Roman emperor Julian in AD 360 complaining about the charity of Christians to the pagans. He wrote, “The impious Galileans [i.e., the Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well.” The ancient world had never seen anything quite like this. Christians established a reputation of being the people who would take care of the impoverished and those who could not take care of themselves.
Compassion for the discarded characterized the early church.
It was a concern for those who had been discarded. For example, the world of the Roman Empire was often characterized by infanticide—which is the tragic killing of infants for no other reason than them being an inconvenience to one’s desired lifestyle. Most of the time infanticide took the form of discarding female infants. Females were not valued as much as males in a pagan society.
So, if a Roman woman gave birth to a baby girl, it was not uncommon to take that baby girl out to the dung heap on the edge of the town. There, the child would be left to die a horrific death. We actually have a letter by a Roman named Hilarion, who wrote to his pregnant wife these disturbing words. “If you are delivered of a child before I return home, if it is a boy keep it, if it is a girl discard it.” Saying, “discard it,” he meant to throw her out to the trash to die.
This should disgust us. But frankly, what would we do about it? Would we merely talk about how awful it is? Or would we do something about it?
The early Christians did something about it. They lived out their faith in these practical, tangible, obvious kinds of ways. These baby girls, for example, who were discarded on the dung heaps, would be rescued by Christians systematically and intentionally. What would happen is that Christians in the community would climb through the garbage and they would save those babies.
They would rescue those little children and raise them as if they were their own. They “loved their [discarded] neighbor as themselves.”
The pagan world had never seen anything quite like this. In fact, it actually disturbed the Emperor, Julian, to see this kind of activity. If you want to know why Christianity expanded, one of the big reasons is their compassion for the discarded, their compassion for the poor.
Where does that leave us, today?
Understanding our heritage should make us proud to bear the name “Christian.” But it is not enough to point to the highlight reel of our spiritual ancestors. We must carry on the mantle in today’s world, tackling today’s problems with diligent strategy and persevering action.
Here at Newbreak, we care about our legacy. By joining us in outreaches, coming along on our mission trips, being obedient in giving of your tithe, and by going beyond with your Kingdom Builder offerings, we are making the world a different place in many tangible ways!
While we want to continue our collective efforts in these ways, let’s also dream about what it means to live marked by compassion in action on a personal level. How can you and I live with revolutionary faith in our weekly lives? The answers are plentiful. For today, we do not want to spell it out for you. Rather, we want to leave you dreaming of how God can and will use you to change the lives of individuals you come into contact with. After all, loving your “neighbor” is simply a way of saying “love those who are close in proximity to you.” Or, “love those you come into contact with.”
Thinking of the early church, every child that was pulled from the “trash pit” was given a new trajectory and a new life. Those children were given a newbreak. How can your acts of compassion do the same for others? We leave you with this thought:
Never underestimate the ripple-effect of self-giving love.
- Bock, Darrell L., Frederick Cardoza, Lynn H. Cohick, Craig A. Evans, Michael W. Goheen, Frank A. James III, Beth Felker Jones, Bryan Litfin, and Douglas J. Moo. NT176 The Gospel Message in the Early Church. Logos Mobile Education. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.
Stark, Rodney. The Rise of Christianity. A sociologist reconsiders history, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).