Advancing God’s Kingdom is a passion for Christians. We are now entering into a season filled with reminders of God’s abundant blessings (Thanksgiving), Christ’s Lordship (Christ the King Sunday), Advent (preparation), Lessons and Carols, Christmas (Christ’s nativity), New Year’s Day, and Epiphany.
A central theme of all these celebrations and times of corporate worship is God’s Kingdom advancing. The victory that is found in the Christian faith is celebrated in this season with more emphasis, or the right emphasis, than normal.
Last night, some of the children and adults of our church worked to pack boxes for Operation Christmas Child. Across the United States, Christians pool lots of small items to be sent to children around the world in honor of Christ’s birth. Small toys, candy, pencils, paper, soap, and toothbrushes are treasures to children in many countries. The goal is not simply giving gifts, but opening the door to telling these children and cultures about Christ.
I recently read some remarkable things about the spread and growth of Christianity from the book Discovering God by Rodney Stark. First of all, Dr. Stark is a sociologist who has written some of the best studies on church history in our time. Among his books are such titles as The Victory of Reason, The Rise of Christianity, and God’s Battalions. Stark synthesizes a wide range of research from historians and filters it through his field of sociology. He doesn’t mind standing alone or nearly alone in his conclusions. His most recent book, which I am currently reading, is How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity.
Second, Stark deals with Christianity as a cultural force and not merely as a religious compartment. Like Abraham Kuyper and Christopher Dawson, Stark sees the impact of Christianity on a wide range of areas of life and thought. Politics, economics, family life, urban life, education, and philosophy are all part of a package deal.
Third, the book Discovering God is a survey and study of world religions. Christianity is just one chapter. The book is subtitled The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief. The chapters include primitive and ancient religions, religions in India and China, and Islam, along with Christianity. I don’t agree with all Dr. Stark says, but I have found this book the most useful resource I have found for teaching my World Civilizations I class.
What I would like to focus on is this: Stark’s ideas about the growth of the early church and the 350 conquest of the Roman Empire by Christian conversions and thought. I want to discuss two related points: the growth of the church and the nature of conversion.
The Rate of Christian Growth
By the year 350 A.D., the Christian community had reached a large population within the Roman Empire. In historical terms, the growth rate of Christianity, from 12 Apostles to conquest of an Empire in 3 centuries, was phenomenal. Stark says, “At issue is how this was achieved: was Christianization the result of a relatively constant rate of growth as social scientists would expect, or was it produced by a series of leaps caused by mass conversions, as many historians and Bible scholars assume?”
Stark believes that the Christian community grew at about 3.4 percent a year. You can consult the book itself for the charts and graphs and details. The model makes sense in terms of the Christian community growing from a few thousand in the beginning to over 31 million by the year 350 A.D.
At issue is the place for revivals and mass conversions on the one hand and sociological patterns on the other hand. Christians have to think Biblically. The Bible has to be foundational and determinative for our doctrines, even for our doctrines in regard to historiography. In other words, the historian, as well as the pastor, has to be convicted and convinced by Scripture alone.
But Scripture never is alone in a total sense. I read the Bible in English, in particular translations, with chapter and verse numbers inserted, in a 21st century American context. When Scripture makes reference to lions, lambs, serpents, rocks, trees, and other phenomena, I step outside of the pages of the Bible to define those things. I borrow constantly from grammar studies, literary devices, history, sociology, biology, anatomy, philosophy, and other disciplines to interpret the words I read in the Bible. Biblical truth and foundations are unchanging, but my understanding and perspectives constantly change.
At issue is how to interpret the Bible and religious experience in the light of sociological standards. I have no doubt that God could convert entire cultures or large groups en masse, instantaneously. I have no doubts about revival being a means God can and does use. I have no doubt that God is able to so radically change a country like Iran that it could be thoroughly Christian by 8 P.M. this evening. The question is this: Does God work in this way? And does the Bible teach that this is the way conversion happens?
I think not. I think the patterns we see in Acts and the Epistles and subsequent church history demonstrate that God grows the kingdom in ways other than sudden, total, en masse conversions
Many of the great revivals in history were more exactly recommitments. The preaching of Edwards and Whitefield in the American colonies did not convert people from Buddhism to Christianity. People were converted, lives were changed, and the faith grew. But these were mainly, almost totally, people who were already professing Christians or were at least nominal Christians. It is similar to lots of church growth in our time. When a church grows from a few dozen to thousands of people, most of that growth is from church to church, from nominal to committed faith, and from shifts in demographics.
True growth in the church may well come more often from the slow, steady beat of Biblical life and teaching. Children grow in Christ, although there are fits and starts in the process. People get saved along the way and some persevere, indicating that the salvation experience was the real thing. If American churches could begin growing at the rate of 3.4 percent a year in terms of real growth, we would encompass the nation and the globe in a few centuries.
So, borrowing from the historians and theologians, we should pray for and work for revival, reformation, and renewal. But God will unfold the answer not in a mass revival, but incrementally through faithful believers persevering in teaching and living the Gospel. Judgment begins with the household of God, and faithful churches plugging along, teaching, discipline, mentoring, and slowly changes lives and families are a long term pattern for world and culture change.
Conversion Viewed as a Sociological Experience
Next, the nature of conversion. Stark writes, “No one who has studied conversion has seen even one normal person join up spontaneously immediately following initial exposure to a group’s message. Recall that sociological studies have found that doctrine plays a very secondary role in conversion, that people convert when their social ties to members of a religious group outweighs their ties to nonmembers” (page 311)
Stark is describing the Christian experience in sociological, not theological, terms. We know that a person is converted when the Holy Spirit, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism asserts, “convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills…doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.” (Answer #31)
But when viewing life from a sociological perspective, what does this look like? Sociology need not presume to know the work of God’s Spirit on a person. They look for the trends, the patterns, the methods of changes in groups.
I think Stark’s observation is incredible. C. S. Lewis’ book Surprised by Joy is a great example of someone whose ties to other Christians came to outweigh his ties to atheism.
This idea also says a lot about the role of the church and the Christian community.
Conversions are always the story of a person leaving the world to join the church. It is a transfer of kingdoms, of going from the kingdom of darkness to a kingdom of light. It is the life of the Christian community that draws people into embracing the Christian walk. Even the prisoner in solitary confinement who is converted transfers his allegiance from one community to another, even though neither is physically present.
This entails the Christian community living the faith. It is a doctrinal purity that is acted out in changed lives. It is not simply intellectual (a Reformed danger) or social (a danger in many growth-driven church communities). It is a combination of what Christians believe, why they believe such, and how it impacts their lives. It is salt and light drawing people from deacy and darkness.
New Christians are often baptized pagans. In a real sense, they are saying, “I am saved, now what?” If the church is not answering the last question, the “convert” reverts back to paganism as soon as the waters of baptism dries.
This is why the message of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together is so critical. This is the importance of discipleship of the converted, of fellowship, of worship in the formal sense being a practice of the forms of everyday life. When I am drawn socially to God’s people, I grow in Christ. When my ties to nonmembers is stronger, my walk is weakened.
Nothing that Stark says or implies weakens the need for personal commitment, internal conversion, growing in a personal relationship with Christ. But the Christian life is communal. Baptism unites us to the body of Christ and Communion itself is horizontal with other believers as well as vertical with the Triune God.