The not quite so astonishing growth of the early church

I’ve recently finished reading Alan Hirsch’s The Forgotten Ways which is a fascinating book and like many books he wrestles with the question of the decline of the church in the West and what can be done to reverse it. Like many (myself included) he advocates that we look to the early church for inspiration or the Chinese church for a more contemporary example.

Hirsch recounts listening to Rodney Stark ask three important questions:

  1. How many Christians do you think there were in the year 100 AD? Stark’s answer as few as 25,000
  2. How many Christians do you think there were just before Constantine around 310 AD? Stark’s answer, approx. 20,000,000
  3. How did they do this?

Hirsch says,

In fact they had none of the things we would ordinarily employ to solve the problems of the church, and yet the grew from 25,000 to 20 million in 200 years! So, how did the early church do it? In answering that question, we can perhaps find the answer to the question for the church and mission in our day and in our context. For herein lies the powerful mystery of church in its most authentic form. (p.19)

The Chinese church went from (according to Hirsch’s figures) around 2 million to perhaps 80 million in around 70 years.

These figures sound astonishing and in the context of a church in decline any kind of growth would be good. But is it all it’s cracked up to be?

According to Rodney Stark in his book Cities of God (p.67) the early church grew at around 3.4% a year and that’s working from a starting point of 1000 Christians in 40 AD. Given the events at Pentecost you’d think that starting figure would be higher, in which case the annual growth would be even lower perhaps as low as 2.5%.

The church in China has grown at a faster rate than the early church but even so at a rate of no more than 5.5% per annum.

I wondered what it would mean if we as a church plant contented ourselves with the 3.4% growth rate of the early church. Let’s use our current starting point of 30 men, women & children. If we could sustain that growth over 200 years as the early church did then our church would in 2217 be around 24,000 strong. Would you take that? Now if just 10 churches in Stockholm did similar then even with the growth of the city we would have a Christian population closer to 10% of the population than the current 1%. Similarly if 100 churches did that all across Sweden then in 200 years, we would not be talking of Sweden as the most secular country in the world.

Sounds good. But there is a problem and the problem may well be me.

Because the growth is compound, it starts off slow. So in real terms, the question is this: would I be OK in the next 10 years growing from a church of 30 to a church of 40? And the answer is, absolutely not. No way. Shoot me first. In fact if I’m happy to grow as the early church did that means accepting a considerably slower rate of growth than we have right now. Now obviously the smaller the group the faster the rate of growth you can have and as you grow the rate of growth slows. But I’m not sure as leaders we have the right kind of mindset.

If I was to stick it out and keep going in this one church and retire at 75 then the church after 30 years of service will have grown from 30 to an astonishing 96. I should think I’d be headlining major conferences and the book deals will have been pouring in.

The problem is that what took the early church a hundred years I think should happen in 10. I don’t want to just be faithful, I want to be successful. But perhaps just perhaps, God has a much longer term view when it comes to reaching the nations. For hundreds of years God was content to put His purposes into one family. For thousands more into one small nation. It took a 1000 years for the Gospel to go from Palestine to Sweden. God is not in the same kind of rush that we are and yet His purposes seen over time have not been thwarted.

We can content ourselves that even though the Church in the west is declining that the church worldwide is growing but would we content ourselves if our church grew but just really, really slowly?

How much change management do I need to invest in for this kind of growth? Well almost hardly any at all. In fact we only need to have a net growth of just one person a year. I don’t need to push that envelope up to +2 until after a decade. I’m not sure I need any new methods, or church overhauls for that kind of heady growth.

So how did Christianity emerge on top in the Roman Empire? Michael Kruger pulls out a few key features from the work of Larry Hurtado.

  1. Christianity allowed “religion” to be separated from the standard ethnic/national identity it was typically associated with. In other words, it crosses ethnic boundaries.
  2. Christianity was exclusive in its worship, devoted to a monotheistic worship of Jesus Christ as Lord. I think we need to think more carefully about the gods of our age and what it means to stop worshipping them.
  3. Christianity was not your standard religion because of its interest in the written word. That in the age of the screen, should remain the case.
  4. Christianity had a distinctive set of ethics. This is so important. When we adopt the ethics of the surrounding culture we lose. If only people could say this about Christians at large today, “They were against infant exposure/abandonment, they insisted that husbands should be sexually faithful to their wives, and they were against the sexual abuse of children.”

So here are the keys to once again changing the religious landscape of Europe over the next two centuries.

  1. Change my perspective and accept the small but consistent growth, trusting God with the big picture.
  2. Raise our children to follow Christ who will raise their kids to follow Christ who will raise their kids to follow Christ and so on.
  3. Adopt the mindset of a culturally distinct but racially diverse minority that will stand up for its beliefs, practices and ethics.
  4. Continue to invest in church planting and disciple-making

That I think should do the trick, but will I be content with that? Would you?

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