If you’ve never read anything by Rodney Stark you are missing out on a lot of educated provocation. Stark’s arguments are always intriguing. I don’t agree with everything he says and I wish he would do more to allow for supernatural explanations, but on the whole I find him full of good sense and delightfully iconoclastic.
A few years ago I made my way through one of his best known books, The Rise of Christianity. Stark, in debunking a number of historical myths, tries to explain from a sociological perspective “how the obscure, marginal Jesus movement became the dominant religious force in the western world in a few centuries.”
Here are thirteen ways, drawn from Stark’s arguments, how we might answer that question:
1. Christianity drew from the worldly, accommodated religious communities of the time. It is hardest to find converts among the serious religious, easiest to get them from those who are most secular or nominal in their commitment.
2. Christianity probably drew its converts, in large part, from the upper class. Privileged classes tend to be the most skeptical about God and most unaffiliated. Thus there are more of them to be won to new religions. If, that is, they are dissatisfied with what they have found in the world.
3. Christianity spread because the Christians cared for each other in times of sickness and disease. Their communal compassion both staved off death and served as an example to outsiders of the transforming power of the Christian faith.
4. The first Christians also cared for outsiders, which won them a hearing with unbelievers.
5. Women were honored in Christianity. Baby girls were not killed. Females of all ages were to be protected. Husbands, not just wives, were expected to be chaste.
6. Christians had more babies than non-Christians, and abortions were considered anathema. The early Christians simply out-birthed the pagans.
7. Christianity grew when it remained an “open network” with connections into the lives of non-Christians.
8. Christians were over-represented in cities, which made them more influential than their numbers because culture tends to flow from cities to the countryside.
9. Christianity gave much needed dignity to human beings. They welcomed strangers, provided community, and offered a refuge from a brutal world.
10. Christian martyrs galvanized and inspired the faith of the early Christians.
11. Christianity in the first few centuries required great sacrifice and entailed a significant stigma. This process of sacrifice and stigma scared off free-riders and made Christianity a more virulent, vibrant faith.
12. Membership in the church was “expensive” and a “bargain” at the same time. That is, following Christ cost you something, but by becoming a Christian you also gained physical support, relational attachments, and shared emotional satisfaction with other believers.
13. Christianity promised rewards to its followers, the reward of being virtuous and the reward of eternal life.
Of course, the simple answer to the question about the rise of Christianity, and the one that Stark (as a sociologist) doesn’t talk about, is simply this: God caused the church to grow. He saved souls. He converted hearts. It was God’s will to cause the church to prosper.
That’s the first thing to say. But not he last. Provided our theological foundation is well established, careful historical and sociological investigation have their place, for their are a number of social factors God often uses, along with his word, to accomplish his good purposes.