monogram-of-christ384x389vaticanIf 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.

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12 thoughts on “Why Did Christianity Grow?”

  1. a. says:

    and good instruction to consider where the counterfeit attempts

  2. Tom says:

    I hate to be the grammar police, but the last paragraph needs some serious help.

  3. JohnM says:

    I wonder about #2: “Christianity probably drew its converts, in large part, from the upper class.” I know the upper classes were represented, but from what I’ve read elsewhere (The World of Late Antiquity, Peter Brown) it was more a mobile lower middle class that was drawn to Christianity.

    In any case, I agree with your last paragraph.

  4. Eric says:

    “for their are a number of social factors God often uses, along with his word, to accomplish his good purposes.”

    You say this very confidently. I am not sure about it. How do you know? What social factors is God taking into account? What social factors does God say He is taking into account?

    [Act 6:7 NASB] 7 The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.

    [Heb 11:3 NASB] 3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.

  5. Adam C. says:

    Thank you for this article Kevin. When I had to discuss this book for school that was always my big push back (there were others but the big one was that). God uses many means by which to save people, but he is sovereign in it still. The gospel, and the communities that centered on it, were never meant to be without action when we read the words of Jesus. This type of obedience amidst speaking the gospel is the most authentic way of speaking it according to the New Testament, but the pendulum often swings to deeds without words, or in this case making much of the deeds and little of the words. I’m thankful for Starks work here, and I realize his book and job was centered more on the sociological aspects of the time, but not making much of the word or God’s sovereignty doesn’t fully explain the expansion.

  6. Philmonomer says:

    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.

    Cannot the Mormons then say the same thing? From 1 person in 1830 to 15 million in 2015. Amazing.

  7. Christoph says:

    I also think point 2 has some problems. Read 1 Cor. . On the c
    same token I do believe we must reach the middle/upper class.

  8. You might find this post interesting.
    Especially in connection with the gospel used by the early church.

  9. It’s a pity you don’t have a donate button! I’d most certainly donate to this brilliant blog!
    I guess for now i’ll settle for bookmarking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account.
    I look forward to fresh updates and will share this blog with my Facebook group.
    Chat soon!

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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