A Different Way of Growing Churches
It was the habitus [habitual behavior] of patient endurance that made Christianity both deeply disturbing and yet attractive to outsiders amid the turmoil, paganism and hurly burly of the first century.
What did the early Christians actually do?
In Evangelism in the Early Church, Michael Green declares ‘A priority of the early Christians seems to have been to have personal conversations with individuals.’ But Green’s emphasis on every Christian being a personal evangelist got it wrong.
That is the claim of Alan Kreider’s recent investigation into the church of the first few centuries, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire. In fact, the teaching given to Christians in those early days after the apostolic period contains no instruction in, or pressure to do, what we call personal evangelism. It seems that Green was assuming twentieth century evangelistic methods and trying to find a rationale for them which simply wasn’t there. In the NT there is no constraint put on ordinary believers to buttonhole their neighbours and confront them with the claims of Christ. Rather what we find is that Christians are to ‘make the most of every opportunity’ when their stand-out lives provoke questions from people (Col 4:5-6; 1 Pet 3:15). It is a responsive witness, not an aggressive one.
This also looks much more like what Kreider finds in the writings of early fathers like Justin, Tertullian and Cyprian and what has been discovered of ancient catechisms.
The church during those years not only withstood empire-wide persecution but grew remarkably. How did it grow? We need to ask that question. As we see the current state of the churches in the West, we must have wondered at some point whether we have been missing something vital—something which builds better churches in the long run.
I do not think that we should swallow what Kreider has to say uncritically. But it is worth pondering what he has found in his investigation of the sources.
Four Basic Elements
According to Kreider the early church grew through a combination of four things, all of which are counter-cultural, to a greater or lesser extent, to current mainstream evangelicalism. These were:
- Patience—this virtue was centrally important to the early churches and early Christians. The first attribute of love, according to Paul, is that it is patient (1 Cor 13:4). Whatever the circumstances, patience reigned.
- ‘Habitus’—habitual behaviour. They took seriously that it was behaviour that spoke truly about what they believed. ‘We do not speak great things, but we live them,’ said Cyprian. A ‘Sermon on the Mount’ patient generosity was to be the Christian’s default setting even under persecution.
- Catechesis and worship—the churches committed to forming these habits of behaviour in their members. A thorough catechesis, which majored on a changed life rather than simply the acceptance of certain doctrines, was the way habits were nurtured. Deep engagement with God in worship provided the motivation in maintaining that changed life.
- Ferment—they relied not on Christian activism, but on God’s invisible power to fulfil his plans, which was seen as not susceptible to human control. Kreider chooses the metaphor of fermentation because, though it is a relentless process, it is both unseen and not in a hurry. The churches were grown by the life of the Spirit not by thrusting evangelistic strategies.
These elements of church life don’t look very much like the exhortations we receive in our churches today. This should make us curious. It was the habitus of patient endurance that made Christianity both deeply disturbing and yet attractive to outsiders amid the turmoil, paganism and hurly burly of the first century.
Instead of making it as easy as possible to become members of the church, it was emphasized that to become a Christian meant committing oneself to a deep change of life. A course of catechesis before baptism and joining the church could take up to three years.