Entrance to auditorium, Ephesus. Cross on lintel shows it was converted into a church.

Following a trip earlier this year to archaeological sites in Turkey, I’ve been writing about the cultural setting in which the apostle Paul and other evangelists preached the good news of Christianity. I’ve looked at Roman architecture, religion, and politics, noting the forces arrayed in defense of the existing order. So why did what started out as a marginal movement located far from centers of power succeed at upending that order? Why, a little over three centuries after the first missionaries set out, was a majority of the populace Christian, while paganism was in decline?

We Christians are likely to respond that God was in it. Sure, but what means did he use? In The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (1996: Princeton University Press), Rodney Stark tries to answer that question. Trevor Wax has provided a helpful summary of Stark’s main points here.

The numerical growth of Christianity of course depended on a lot of people converting, and Stark offers some interesting observations on what prompts conversions. In particular, he notes the following:

  • Converts are typically those who have strong relationships with members of the movement to which they convert–“conversion tends to proceed along social networks formed by interpersonal attachments.” (p. 18)
  • Converts typically don’t have pre-existing religious commitments that would interfere; they tend to be “the religiously inactive and discontented, and those affiliated with the most accommodated (worldly) religious communities.” (p. 19)
  • Converts to new religions are similar to early adopters of other sorts of cultural innovations. They tend to be “well among average in terms of income and education.” p. 38
  • It is only when such more privileged members of society are discontented with the conventional religious options available to them that there is an opening for a new religion to flourish.

In line with these general principles, Stark suggests the following about Christian conversion:

  • Paul’s missionary efforts were most successful among the middle and upper classes, so the early church was largely a movement of the more privileged members of society.
  • The Christian message was particularly appealing to the Hellenized Jews of the diaspora. They were socially marginal, and thus were not likely to obtain the rewards available to those more integrated in the culture. At the same time, corresponding to the second point above, they were “relatively worldly, accommodated, and secular.” (p. 60) They were also likely to have interpersonal attachments to Jews who were already Christians.
  • The social and religious structures were periodically overwhelmed by epidemics. “The epidemics swamped the explanatory and comforting capacities of paganism and of Hellenistic philosophies.” (p. 74) Whereas pagans tended to abandon those of their number that were ill, Christians cared for their sick and also for some of the non-Christians who were ill. Thus, a higher percentage of Christians survived. Non-Christians who survived often lost many of the attachments that kept them from converting and were attracted by the Christian ethic of caring for those in need.
  • Women enjoyed much higher status in the Christian subculture than they did in the society at large. Infanticide of girl babies led to a shortage of females in the broader society but not in the church, where girls were raised to maturity. There was a low fertility rate in the society as a whole, but not among Christians. Women converts often brought their husbands with them into the church (secondary conversion); intermarriage between Christian women and pagan men probably also led to conversions.
  • The cities of the Roman empire were places of intense human misery. They were extremely overcrowded, much more so than even the densest cities today. Most people lived in tiny tenements lacking furnaces, fireplaces, clean water, or efficient sewers. Besides the periodic epidemics, “illness and physical affliction were probably the dominant features of daily life in this era.” (p. 154) Mortality rates were high, necessitating a constant stream of newcomers, resulting in deficient attachments and clashes among diverse ethnic groups. The typical city was vulnerable to “attacks, fires, earthquakes, famines, epidemics, and devastating riots.” (p. 159) All of this misery may have led residents to desire something better.

The desire for an improved lot may be most acute when a society is in chaos, but it is something common to humans of every era and social situation. What did Christians offer that was better? Stark makes a couple observations about Christian belief that probably were radically new. Christians maintain that God loves humankind and shows mercy to us even when we don’t deserve it. In contrast, Greek and Roman gods were mostly capricious or selfish, not loving. In fact, the ancient world thought mercy and pity were weaknesses, qualities to be avoided. Christians also linked a social ethical code with religion–believers were to love others and act out that love in their social interactions. Pagans did have their own ethical obligations; for example they were to worship the gods by offering sacrifices. This was mainly a form of social exchange, though, and one’s faith didn’t create much obligation to treat others well. Christianity introduced ethical obligations to everyone, ethical obligations that were to be followed whether or not there was an expectation of immediate earthly rewards.

Of course such ethical standards were a matter of imitating God himself, who sent his son to care even for those in rebellion against Him. God is love. Love him and each other. That’s still the core of the Christian faith. The world needed that message in the first century. The world needs that message today.

Christian symbol etched into pavement of a synagogue in Sardis, Turkey

 

 

 

The recent pop song “Stand by You” by Rachel Platten includes the following lyrics:

Even if we can’t find heaven, I’m gonna stand by you
Even if we can’t find heaven, I’ll walk through Hell with you
Love, you’re not alone, ’cause I’m gonna stand by you.

It’s an uplifting anthem even though, if you really think about it, if you’re actually walking through hell, having someone beside you would probably only marginally improve the experience. Presumably the language is figurative, and the message is “I’ll be with you even through the hard times.”

The video for the song doesn’t contain any walking-through-hell scenes, either literal or figurative–not that I could tell, anyway. Instead, it shows Rachel singing and people showing warmth and caring to others. At one point, what looks like a church choir joins Rachel, clapping and dancing enthusiastically. Maybe no one is finding heaven, but they certainly seem optimistic in their pursuit of it.

All this reminds me of my church. I wrote last September that we had dwindled to just a few members and were considering disbanding. That prospect troubled me, since those who remained had invested so much in the church, serving and supporting one another. Though the situation looked grim in one sense, in another way I thought we were exactly what a church should be. I wrote about our conversations with each other then:

“It felt at the meeting like we had spent years climbing a mountain, slipped back down nearly to the base, and were wondering if we had it in us to climb the mountain again. But what if the mountain has nothing to do with how many members we have or how many attend Sunday services? What if the mountain we needed to climb was to be faithful to Christ through hardship and to let him shape us so that we became more like him? In that case, judging from what happened at the meeting, we’ve already climbed the mountain and are at or near the summit.”

We decided then to continue as a congregation, and worshiped together every week for almost five months. We had a few more people who were once peripheral members attend more often, but for the most part it was the same dozen people who continued praying for each other, singing together, studying the Bible, and sharing our joys and sorrows with each other.

Recently we had another meeting. The pastor said that, though we weren’t in financial difficulty yet, we couldn’t afford to pay his salary for an extended period of time. He was feeling pulled to be in a larger, more conventional church. A few other people expressed the same desire, and some of the rest acknowledged that, as much as it pained them, the best decision would probably be to disband. We all said that we want to maintain our relationships, and we made plans to meet regularly with one another once our Sunday morning services stopped. Our last worship service as an organized church was yesterday.

I am said about this. I’m consoled, though, by the thought that, during our time together, we truly constituted the church of Christ, and did so more purely and maturely than I had ever seen before.

What does all this have to do with finding heaven? A few weeks ago, I ran across a reference to something Jonathan Edwards said about the church and heaven. Edwards asked, how is the church like heaven? He decided that what made the church on earth like heaven wasn’t the signing or the Bible reading or the sermons. It wasn’t the meetings and activities that members attended or the charismata, the gifts they possessed. It was love. D.A. Carson, who summarized what Edwards said about the church, added:

“The greatest evidence that heaven has invaded our sphere, that the Spirit has been poured out upon us, that we are citizens of a kingdom not yet consummated, is Christian love.” (In Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of I Corinthians 12-14)

So, having been part of a church where everyone loves everyone else–and lives out that love by listening, encouraging, reaching out, and helping–is to have found heaven. My church no longer meets, but still it lives on, as long as that love endures (and the Apostle Paul promises that it endures forever–see I Corinthians 13:13). Sure I’m sad, but mostly I’m grateful. Why did God bless me by letting me experience heaven while still on earth? I may never know. But, having found heaven (or, rather, being found by it), I look forward to the next time I’m there, regardless of which side of the grave that happens.

This past Wednesday my church had the sort of meeting no church ever wants to have. We met to decide whether to continue as a church or disband. When I joined the church shortly after moving to the area three years ago, I never thought things would come to this. It was always a small church, but it was vibrant, with lots of college students and young professionals. Church services were (and still are) joyful but also a time for deep, quiet reflection; sermons were rich and encouraging. The church wasn’t really growing, but that was largely because so many of those who left had been inspired to go to seminary or enter church work of some kind. The future seemed bright.

There were a few problems. We were a small church, and there weren’t many people to do the work that was entailed in keeping everything going. Some members started complaining about the workload. About a year ago, a few members left; so as not to burden the remaining members, the steering team cut back on some things we were doing. That affected programs, and some people became dissatisfied that the church didn’t have the programs they wanted. More people left. In about the past three months the loss of members cascaded, and, finally, there was a church service in the middle of August that nobody attended (that’s not quite true; the pastor and five people were there). So, the natural question became, should we continue or just disband? And if we continue, how can we become a sustainable church again? Thus the meeting.

Twelve people attended, plus one via Skype. There was a couple in their fifties and their daughter, a couple in their forties, two couples somewhere around 30 (I’m bad at estimating ages so this sentence may be mostly inaccurate), the pastor, and his wife. I was the oldest person there. A teenager, daughter of the second couple, joined us after work. Our only remaining college student had a class and couldn’t make it.

The pastor and the head of the steering team had drawn up a list of four options, three of which were to go on in some fashion and the fourth of which was to disband. We each talked about how we saw the church and what we thought would be the best course of action. Several people mentioned being discouraged by the work that it would take to rebuild the congregation. A couple with young children said they thought it might be best for their kids to go to a church with more programs. Someone asked our pastor whether it would be a relief if he no longer had to lead a struggling church. He didn’t think so, but said he was shaken when only five people came to a service and thought he didn’t have the energy to cope with that happening many more times. His wife broke down when she talked about how hard it is to set up for a service not knowing if anyone will come.

At the same time, about half of us were leaning toward continuing. Even those who were leaning the other way talked about not wanting to give up the community we have together. We are, indeed, a family to each other. We have gotten to know each other incredibly well and care deeply for each other. One person who is thinking of leaving asked, “But couldn’t we still meet together to talk about faith?” Isn’t that kind of what church is? The teenager said she loved her church and that all the adults treated her like a person, not just a kid. Everyone was open; everyone got support even if they expressed views different from the rest of the group. We couldn’t find resolution, though. Toward the end of the meeting I didn’t want the church to disband but I had a sense of dread that we might have to do so. I think I wasn’t alone in that dread.

We decided to wait one week before making a decision. I hardly slept at all that night; I was in misery since I couldn’t see a way forward. Early the next morning, as I reflected (or maybe obsessed) on the meeting, it dawned on me that something remarkable had occurred there. These twelve people (I won’t include myself because I was the last of those present to join) had invested themselves in the church without holding back. Everyone had picked up the slack for someone else who either wouldn’t sign up to help or signed up and didn’t follow through. I suspect everyone felt abandoned by members who seemed committed or even led the church (did I mention that all but one member of the steering team left this summer?), then disappeared. If anyone had a right to throw up their hands and walk away, to rail at those who left, to blame the pastor or leadership or God or anybody else that came to mind, to say “I told you so” about suggestions not taken and warnings not heeded, to remind us all of how much they had done, it was these people.

Yet none of them did. No one said they wanted to walk away in disgust, no one vented, no one blamed.  Every person there was open, often to the point of rawness, about their feelings, and none of these feelings were toxic. Everyone listened, everyone empathized, everyone encouraged the others. More than anything else, everyone loved each other. I believe that God’s Spirit was present, ministering to each of us through everyone else. Thinking back over my sixty-plus years of participating in various churches, I could recall only one other meeting in which I sensed the Spirit was present to this degree.

I shared these thoughts with a friend who has been a pastor’s wife for over thirty years. Her take was that God must have been working for years to get us to that point, stripping away the illusions and false hopes so just love remained. She and her husband had a similar experience once early in their ministry. The church they were then serving went through a tremendous struggle and were left with just a faithful few. They considered closing, but didn’t, and now are serving their community in wonderful ways. She said something like this: “God doesn’t accomplish his purposes by building big churches with lots of programs. Christ works through small groups who have been purified for his purpose. You’re one of those groups.”

Maybe we are. I was still left wondering what it would mean for us to be a successful church. We’ve been thinking that we need to build our numbers up. It felt at the meeting like we had spent years climbing a mountain, slipped back down nearly to the base, and were wondering if we had it in us to climb the mountain again. But what if the mountain has nothing to do with how many members we have or how many attend Sunday services? What if the mountain we needed to climb was to be faithful to Christ through hardship and to let him shape us so that we became more like him? In that case, judging from what happened at the meeting, we’ve already climbed the mountain and are at or near the summit.

And what about all the programs and activities that other churches have but we don’t? Some of those seem appealing to me as well. But aren’t those programs and activities for the purpose of spiritual formation–to change our hearts and minds so we become more like Christ? If that is happening to us in such a powerful way already, how many more programs do we really need? How much sense would it make to disband and go to other churches so that we can get into programs to teach us how to get what we already have?

How about the kids? We do have a worship time for them during the sermon, but they are missing out on the rich array of educational activities that many churches have. We probably can do better. Still, there are lots of kids who grow up in other congregations going to those activities and end up disliking the church and keeping their distance from all things religious. Are they really better off than our kids, all of whom seem to love our church as much as the teenager in the meeting does?

None of this means that we aren’t in a difficult position. We aren’t in financial straits yet, but will be eventually if something doesn’t change. At this point, I don’t know if we’ll decide to continue on. Still, since the meeting, my thoughts about what makes for a successful church have changed totally.

A couple days ago, I sent an email to those at the meeting, suggesting that maybe God’s intention all along was to bring us to this point where we love each other the way we do. I added that our church has become the most successful church I’ve ever been a part of. Just so they wouldn’t think I’m nuts, I carefully specified that I was using as my criterion of success that we become Christ-like. They know me  well, though, and probably knew before the email that I can be kind of nuts. That’s OK. They love me anyway.

So, we’ll meet again on Wednesday September 16. I ask for your prayers for us. And while you’re at it, pray for yourself, too, that, if it hasn’t happened up until this point in your life, you will someday be part of a community that loves God and each other the way we did on Wednesday. As I know all too well, being in that sort of church can be painful, but the joy far outweighs the pain.

jesus-christ-statue

UPDATE: When we met on Wednesday, we decided to continue meeting for at least a year. We’ll focus first of all on getting closer to each other and finding a way of worshiping that those wary of God or church might find easier to participate in. We started that process with our worship service today (9-12-15). I’m excited about what God is doing among us!