In his book The Rise of Christianity, Dr. Rodney Stark estimates that Christianity grew an average of 40 percent per decade for the first few centuries of its existence. To put that in perspective, if WELS grew at that rate, in two generations we would have over two million members.
How did that happen? Christianity was started by misfits from the armpit of the Roman Empire. Christians didn’t worship in opulent temples. Early believers worshiped in homes. Christianity had no sociological advantages. Becoming a Christian made it likely you would experience ridicule or even persecution. How does Christianity explode in those circumstances?
The gospel. The gospel was entirely unique. Plenty of religions talked about powerful gods who demanded you offer sacrifices to them. The gospel told of an all-powerful God who became weak and sacrificed himself for you. Other religions offered some version of life after death, but it was always conditional. Do a good work; get a good eternity. The gospel offered physical resurrection and eternity in paradise entirely on the basis of Christ’s work, not your own.
Paul wrote to the Colossians, “The gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world”(1:6). The supernatural power and beauty of the gospel—that is what caused the early church to explode.
However, that doesn’t tell the whole story. It wasn’t simply that the early Christians proclaimed the gospel. They gained an audience for the gospel by the way they lived their lives.
A good example of this occurred during a pandemic. In the early fourth century, the historian Eusebius wrote about a plague that was rolling over the eastern half of the empire. Healthy people fled the cities for the safety of the countryside. But one group largely stayed behind—Christians. “All day long, [Christians] tended to the dying and to their burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them.” Eusebius states that as people witnessed this compassion, “[the Christians’] deeds were on everyone’s lips, and they glorified the God of the Christians.” There are dozens of examples of history noting how Christians took care of the sick.
Christians were known to care for the poor too. The Roman Emperor Julian wanted to wipe out Christianity and re-institute emperor worship. After a few years of trying, Julian wrote a letter to a pagan priest in which he explained why he now believed Christianity would take over the empire. “[Christians] support not only their poor, but ours as well. All men see that our people lack aid from us.” Christians showed levels of mercy and benevolence that won them an audience. When people would ask Christians, “Why do you do what you do?” they could share the gospel.
COVID-19 is undeniably awful. Many thousands have died. The economies of the world are in shambles. However, COVID-19 is also an amazing opportunity. It is, first and foremost, an opportunity to serve Christ by serving others in whatever way they need.
As we seize those God-given opportunities to serve our neighbor, perhaps Christ will give us another opportunity—to share why we do what we do . . . to share the hope we have.
If Americans are caught in a nexus of needs and fears, fine. Let us be the ones who step up first to meet those needs. Let us be the ones to explain why we need not fear anything. Let us do this simply because we are the body of Christ. We do what he would do. And we want him glorified.
Jon Hein, coordinator of WELS Congregational Services