This book destroyed one of my cherished apologetic views. I have always understood the rise of the early church as pure miracle. After all, how could a group of persecuted people following a crucified “criminal” become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire in a mere three centuries? The only comparable phenomenon I knew of was the rise of Islam, but it grew because of military conquest.
It turns out that there are good logical ways to understand the rise of Christianity in those early years. Rodney Stark, using his sociology toolbox, turned his attention to this phenomenon in the aptly titled, The Rise of Christianity.
Stark begins with basic growth arithmetic. Numerically speaking, Christianity grew at 40% per decade, which is similar to the growth of Mormonism. For those first years (when the New Testament was written), it would have looked painfully small and inconsequential. However, 40% growth per decade creates an exponential curve.
After justifying the overall growth trend, he turns his eye to the factors which led to such growth. Here a few of the causes that stood out:
- The incredibly strong social networks of the Jewish people, the source of Christianity’s first people, empowered the spread of the good news. There was a reason even Paul started his ministry in local synagogues.
- Christianity developed a surplus of women due to the prohibition of female infanticide and abortion. This increasing number of women would have married and brought men into the faith, swelling their numbers.
- Ancient cities were horribly overcrowded and dangerous places that bred disease. Christians offered a vision of hope to the oppressed and, through selfless care during times of epidemics, saw more of their sick live.
It turns out that the growth of the early church is the natural effect of living the sort of eternal life that Jesus both taught and lived. While I would be the last person to deny the effective work of the Holy Spirit (after all, that’s how every person comes to Jesus), it was moving for me to see the way that God’s Kingdom grew in the midst of the kingdoms of the world.
The early growth of Christianity is a deeper sort of miracle than I had realized. Rather than relying some deus ex machina, the early church grew by embodying (incarnating) their self-giving Saviour in the midst of a depraved and crumbling Empire. Many parallels can be drawn between the Roman Empire and Western culture. Perhaps the church is poised for a new burst of life!
—Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (New York: HarperOne, 1996).