Philip Jenkins asks, ‘how many Christians were there in the year 200?‘ and the answer is not very many. At least not when you consider the population of the Roman Empire.
For the sake of argument, let us suggest a global Christian population of perhaps 250,000. That represents a stunning expansion from the small groups we glimpse in apostolic times, but the number is tiny when we think of the vast geographical extent of the large world, from Mesopotamia to Britain. It is also a tiny fraction of that world – perhaps 0.36 percent of whole population of the Roman Empire at this time, or one in three hundred.
This is perhaps 50,000 or so higher than Rodney Stark thinks but really the difference isn’t all that significant. The number of Christians had grown from a few thousand from Pentecost to 250,000 in 160 years or so which sounds impressive but isn’t.
Christians were clumped together in larger numbers in the cities and so large swathes of the Empire would have had no discernible Christian presence at all.
Rome itself would likely have been by far the largest, with (say) 40,000 Christians. We might then estimate communities of 10-15,000 for such regional capitals as Antioch, Alexandria, and Carthage, 5,000 for Jerusalem and Ephesus. Those numbers do not seem very high, but if they are even close to accurate, those six centers alone would account for 100,000 people, or 40 percent of the world Christian population. That leaves just 150,000 to fill all those smaller cities and towns, from Britain to southern India.
However it continued to grow slowly and steadily until 100 years later it was a much more credible 20,000,000.
The numbers can dazzle the not quite so astonishing growth of the early church should give church planters everywhere heart. Of course that doesn’t mean complacency or laziness but instead a more realistic perspective.
A following of fifty to sixty would have been much more common. In modern terms, only a tiny minority of early congregations would qualify as a megachurch. (The normal cutoff for that label is two thousand members).
Too often church leaders and church planters have been focused on big churches. I feel the pressure, I feel the dissatisfaction, I feel the ambition. Yet, yet, small has far more often been the norm among the church historical than the large and still the church grows.
And to think that little over a century after that point, Christianity would be the dominant religion in the whole Roman Empire.
Shed some of the baggage of today and focus on the these four principles:
- Change my perspective and accept the small but consistent growth, trusting God with the big picture.
- 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.
- Adopt the mindset of a culturally distinct but racially diverse minority that will stand up for its beliefs, practices and ethics.
- Continue to invest in church planting and disciple-making
What has happened before can happen again and what is happening elsewhere can happen here.