Why Did the Early Church Grow So Fast?

Any student of the early church knows that the church experienced remarkable growth. At times this was despite severe persecution. The growth of the church after 312 A.D. is not hard to explain but why did it grow so rapidly before the rise of Constantine? In his new book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, Alan Kreider makes the case that it was not because of an emphasis on evangelism. He notes that while the Christians wrote three treatises on patience they didn’t write a single one on evangelization. Here is an excerpt from the book. I find Kreider’s thesis intriguing for a number of reasons. Most notably is how the contemporary worship service is designed to be an evangelistic tool in itself. A thought quite foreign to the early church as you’ll see from the passage below. (All bold is mine for emphasis.)

“In places where we would expect to find instructions to engage in mission—for example, a growing church’s catechetical materials preparing people for baptism—we look in vain for references to evangelization. The best surviving summary of catechetical topics, Cyprian’s To Quirinus 3, contains 120 precepts for catechumens in Carthage, but not one of them admonishes the new believers to share the gospel with the gentiles. Early Christian preachers do not appeal to the “Great Commission” in Matthew 28:19–20 to inspire their members to “make disciples of all nations”; they assume that the “apostles” (Jesus’s eleven plus Paul) had done this in the church’s earliest years and that it had already been fulfilled in the church’s global expansion. When writers referred to the Matthew 28:19–20 text, it was to buttress the doctrine of the Trinity or to address the issue of baptism, not to inspire missionary activity.

Of course there were no missionary societies at that period and no parachurch mission agencies. Surprisingly, there are only two missionaries whose names we know. The Alexandrian teacher Pantaenus’s journey from Egypt to India appears legendary, but there seems to be more history behind Origen’s student Gregory, who in the mid-third century returned to his native Pontus in what is today northern Turkey. There simply are no others. The bearers of the faith are nameless. There are no iconic missionary heroes/heroines, no self-conscious successors to Paul, until the fifth century when Patrick, the evangelist of Ireland, shows what had not been present in earlier centuries.

Most improbable of all, the churches did not use their worship services to attract new people. In the aftermath of the persecution of Nero in AD 68, churches around the empire—at varying speeds in varying places—closed their doors to outsiders. By the end of the second century, most of them had instituted what liturgical scholars have called the disciplina arcani, the “discipline of the secret,” which barred outsiders from entering “private” Christian worship services and ordered believers not to talk to outsiders about what went on behind the closed doors. Fear motivated this closing—fear of people who might disrupt their gatherings or spy on them. By the third century, some churches assigned deacons to stand at the doors, monitoring the people as they arrived. They admitted catechumens to the opening part of worship, the service of the word with its readings and sermon, but not pagans; and to the service of the Eucharist that followed they admitted neither pagans nor catechumens—only the baptized members of the community and believers from other churches with letters of recommendation. It is not surprising that pagans responded to their exclusion from Christian worship by speculation and gossip. The baptized Christians, on the other hand, knew how powerful the worship services were in their own lives—early fourth-century North African believers said simply, “We cannot go without the Lord’s supper.” They knew that worship services were to glorify God and edify the faithful, not to evangelize.” (pp. 10-11)

Kreider notes that what drew pagans to Christianity was not their worship service but their alternative lifestyle. (Indeed, he writes: “Unlike many churches today, the third-century churches described by the Apostolic Tradition did not try to grow by making people feel welcome and included. Civic paganism did that. In contrast, the churches were hard to enter.” p. 149) Kreider again explains:

According to Tertullian, the outsiders looked at the Christians and saw them energetically feeding poor people and burying them, caring for boys and girls who lacked property and parents, and being attentive to aged slaves and prisoners. They interpreted these actions as a “work of love.” And they said, “Vide, look! How they love one another.” They did not say, “Aude, listen to the Christians’ message”; they did not say, “Lege, read what they write.” Hearing and reading were important, and some early Christians worked to communicate in these ways too. But we must not miss the reality: the pagans said look! Christianity’s truth was visible; it was embodied and enacted by its members.

There is so much here to learn. The Patient Ferment of the Early Church (Baker Academic) is a paperback with 336 pages and sells for $26.99.

Alan Kreider (PhD, Harvard University) is professor emeritus of church history and mission at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. For many years he lived in England, where he was director of the London Mennonite Centre and later director of the Centre for Christianity and Culture at Regent’s Park College, Oxford University. Kreider has authored several books, including The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom and Worship and Mission after Christendom.

Cover Art

 

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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