In Rodney Stark’s work on The Rise of Christianity, he chronicles some of the plausible factors that led to Christianity growing from a small Jewish sect in Jerusalem to the official religion of the empire in just 300 years. Have you ever considered the astronomical rate of conversion that must have taken place to spread a particular faith that rapidly without the use of the sword? We see evidence of “mass conversion” early in the preaching of the Gospel - 3,000 new converts during Pentecost (Acts 2:41), 5,000 more after another apostolic message some days later (Acts 4:4). But the number of those who at least claimed Christianity would grow to several million within just a few generations. An obvious factor was the commitment to evangelism among early Christians - the fact that most took their great commission (Matthew 28:18-20) quite seriously. But what did people actually find attractive about Christianity? Why were they convicted to make Christ their Lord? Of course the main appeal was an understanding of the significance of an atoning death for sin and a resurrection that defeated death. But Stark also uses historical and social research to assert some further reasons. Here are some of them:
- The Appeal of Christianity to all Social-Economic Classes and Ethnicities (see the language of Ephesians 2-3; Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11, etc., for how Christianity changed was a social revolution in terms of status)
- A Somewhat Successful Mission to the Jews Spread throughout the Empire (allowing Christianity to use a pre-existing network of God-fearers...the apostles usually went to a town's synagogue first)
- How Differently Christians Responded to Plagues and Other Disasters than the Response of Pagans (in that they cared for the sick and dying…and had a hope that pagan people did not)
- Christianity Bestowed a much larger Role and Status upon Women than any other Social System Had Come Close to (again see Galatians 3:28 and all the prominent women mentioned in the New Testament, including the first witnesses of the Resurrection of Jesus)
- Evangelism was largely Focused on Urban Centers where the Densest Populations Lived (look at the Book of Acts - Jerusalem, Antioch of Syria, Ephesus, Athens, Corinth, Rome, etc.)
- The Faithfulness of the Martyrs (holding to their faith even when killed publicly)
- The Pluralism of the Roman Empire (allowing Christianity to at least take root before it was seen as a threat)
In the end, Stark boils it down to “the ultimate factor” in Christianity’s rise when he says: “Central doctrines of Christianity prompted and sustained attractive, liberating, and effective social relations and organizations.” What does he mean? The societal ideas that many take for granted today like neighborly love, human rights, respecting and honoring people of all social classes and ethnicities, focus on medical care, shelter for the homeless, fostering and adoption of orphans, and other forms of social work…were largely forged from the doctrines of Christianity. Many in today's Western society have forgotten this and are serving food from a table called love while simultaneously cutting its legs out from under it. But without Jesus, the system will have nothing to hold it up. For “in Him, all things hold together…” (Col. 1:17).
So keep the revolution of love going. And as you go, spreading truth and love, remind people that your work is in the name of Jesus. Restore the legs to the table from which the world has been eating for the last 2,000 years.
To His Glory,
For further reading, here is a link to Rodney Stark's book: