It’s a great story that always inspires: How the church grew from a small band of disciples at the first Easter to become the official state religion of the Roman Empire approximately 300 years later. Think of how improbable this success was, given that:
- its founder was executed,
- it originated in a backwater corner of the empire,
- its initial leadership was a riffraff of nobodies or people held in low esteem.
It is astonishing that Christianity overcame a mighty empire without resorting to violence or political pressure. Instead, it had a powerful idea that proved irresistibly attractive as Christians lived it out and others experienced its blessings. Personal conversions by personal choice from both paganism and atheism to Christianity changed the Empire peacefully from within.
The history of ancient Christianity’s growth appeals to us because it gives hope that such growth could happen again – maybe even today! The growth was fueled by ordinary believers who were highly effective at sharing their faith.
Folks, we can do this!
Sociologist Rodney Stark’s1 statistical regression analysis on the growth of Christianity shows the enormous impact that ordinary believers had. Because Paul takes up so much of the New Testament, it’s easy to believe that he single-handedly caused the growth of our faith. But that’s not true. Stark’s analysis shows that Paul’s missionary work as an evangelist had no significant, independent effect on Christianity’s growth, while those of the Hellenistic and Diaspora lay communities had strong, significant, independent effects on the growth of our faith. This is not to disparage the work of Paul – far from it – but it does show the power of the laity when they take the Great Commission seriously!
Again, folks, we can do this!
Ancient Church Growth
According to Stark’s analysis, Christianity grew from about 1,000 adherents2 in AD 40 to 52% of the Roman Empire’s population in AD 350. That’s impressive!
Stark has done extensive analysis of the growth patterns and correlated church growth with many other factors such as urban/rural locations, trading routes, pre-existing religious beliefs in the area, social-economic status of adherents and so on. While God works in the hearts of people hearing the gospel and calls them to himself, Stark shows how the evangelism of ordinary believers brought the faith to them so that it permeated Roman society.
What this means is that God did not have to do anything miraculous to grow the church. He worked through human agency, blessing his people as they lived Christian lives. The growth rate they achieved from AD 40 to 350 was 3.4% per year, every year, for 310 consecutive years. Is that possible today? Could we hope to match what the ancient church experienced?
The same God who was at work among the ancient Christians is still at work among us today. And while Christianity overall is currently growing at 1.2% per year, we know that 3.4% is quite doable. In fact, global Pentecostalism grew by 5.4% per year, every year from 1970 to 2014 (the most recent year we have statistics for), proving that growth can be sustained over several decades when people are passionately committed to living out their faith just as those of the ancient church were.
Church Growth Today
Evidence shows that only the Evangelical section of the church is growing as a percentage of the Canadian population, so let’s focus on it as the source of Christianity’s future growth. There are two key numbers:
- In Canada, Evangelicals are currently estimated to be 12% of the population (including the Evangelically-aligned in the Roman Catholic and Mainline Protestant churches), which is about where the Christian population of the Roman Empire was at around 305.3 So it’s not like we’re starting back at square one today! That’s encouraging.
- The Canadian population is expected to grow at 1% for the next several decades, which is the same growth rate the Roman Empire experienced between AD 14 and 168 (and presumably after as well), so we could see similar results in similar timeframes.
This is exciting information!! Considering what these two numbers are telling us, all we need to do to match the early church’s growth rate is to have every 29 Evangelicals bring one person to Christian faith every year, for the next forty-five years. That’s not attracting someone from another branch of the Christian faith, or even from another church, to your church. That is every 29 Evangelicals bringing someone of no faith or a non-Christian faith to Christian faith every year.
That’s my vision for the church. Sustained incremental growth that exceeds the general population growth. Continuously. For the next forty-five years at least, and preferably forever after until there’s no one left to convert. Forty-five years would get us to about half the population of Canada.
I’m not suggesting that we want to reach 50% in order to gain political power or any other sort of power. In fact, if I had a chance for a do-over of the ancient church’s growth, I would want the church to reject to being made the state religion. When that happened, the church got off track. Having status as the official religion of Rome caused some people to convert to Christianity only to advance their careers, status, and wealth. Nominal converts started to fill some leadership roles. The weakening of true Christian faith within churches was the impetus for the Desert Fathers and Mothers to move out into the wildernesses in protest and to keep the faith pure.
State accommodation and support of religious activity in general is fine, but a state church or religion poses serious problems to the integrity of our faith and our churches.
Strategy for Growth
My intent isn’t for your church to set a goal to grow at 3.4% a year. You can if you want, but that statistic is really just an encouragement to engage in an activity which brings hugely significant results over time. It is also meant to spur you to look for evidence of fruitfulness from your congregational members. We shouldn’t settle for merely being busy with church programs and serving existing members. We can’t be satisfied with transfer growth. We must have a holy discontent if we aren’t seeing something like the Lord adding to our numbers every day.
You might get some good ideas to stimulate church growth from the reasons Stark found for the ancient church’s success:
- Christianity offered the world monotheism stripped of ethnic encumbrances. Everyone could worship the One True God while remaining people of all nations. This is great news for a multi-ethnic country like Canada. Encourage and support ethnic and multi-ethnic ministries.
- Conversion, Stark says, is primarily about bringing one’s religious behaviour into alignment with that of one’s friends and relatives, not about encountering attractive doctrines. Ancient Christians evangelized using their social networks of family, friends, and business acquaintances. These broad networks allowed for crossing social boundaries, just like LinkedIn does when someone you know knows someone in a different social strata from yours. So pastors, get your congregation engaged in mission within their own social networks.
- Conversion is more about being attracted to a way of living than a set of beliefs. Therefore, Christians need to live distinctly Christian lives which give evidence to faith at work in daily life. They need to seriously reflect on how their faith should affect how they live and the choices they make. If faith doesn’t result in a distinctly Christian lifestyle, it isn’t as deeply held as it should be.
- Doctrine becomes much more important after conversion. The better a person understands God as knowing and caring about them as an individual, the more the person is inspired to a life of commitment, devotion, and service to God. Pastors, make it a goal that every member of your church will have a life-giving theological and spiritual vitality. This is the foundation for effective mission work. There is no place for people to stay with a shallow or casual faith in the Christian church.
- Stark refers to people having religious capital, which is the amount of time, effort, and emotion invested into a religious belief. People attempt to conserve their religious capital, and so it is more difficult to convert a person from one religion to another because of the cost of giving up their religious beliefs. The closer their beliefs are to Christian beliefs, the easier it is for them to convert. For example, the cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis (which flourished in the Empire from Julius Caesar’s time through to the fourth century AD) had concepts of resurrection and after-life which made its cult members more amenable to conversion to Christianity than members of other cults. They could lose the specifics of the Isis cult, while keeping their belief in the after-life. The easiest conversions, though, are by those who have no religious beliefs. Stark says that today the people most likely to convert to Christianity are those who were raised in nonreligious homes. This is good news because in Canada we certainly have lots of these! The second easiest conversions are adherents of other monotheistic religions.
Okay, let’s go!
The church should be growing significantly if its adherents are acting on their faith and the Great Commission. If we’re not getting real conversions, from non-Christian belief to Christian belief, at a level above the population’s growth rate, then we need to ask ourselves “Why not?”
The ancient church was driven by passion to share their faith with unbelievers. They were willing to make significant personal sacrifices to demonstrate God’s love to a needy world. Let’s pick up the challenge they have left for us. I find this personally challenging, as you probably do too, but let’s trust God and take Christ’s mission for the church as our own personal mission!
Key Thought: Vibrant faith is expressed through evangelism
- Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome by Rodney Stark ↩
- Stark uses a conservative number of 1,000 Christians in AD 40, explaining in his book The Rise of Christianity (p. 5) he believes it is wise to be conservative given that in ancient times, as is still true today, reporting numbers were in part rhetorical exercises and not necessarily meant to be taken literally. The effect of Stark’s low conservative estimate increases the required growth rate of the church, and that means the growth rate he reports is the maximum rate we would need today to match the early church. Matching it should not be that hard to do! ↩
- Cities of God by Rodney Stark p 67 ↩