Monday, April 16, 2007

Wheaton Theology Conference: How the early church grew

This past week was the annual Wheaton Theology Conference, cosponsored by InterVarsity Press. This year's theme was "Ancient Faith for the Church's Future," exploring how the early church's theology and praxis intersects with our contemporary context.

One session that I found particularly interesting was presented by Alan Kreider of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, who talked about the early church's approach to evangelism. In summary, the early church was not actually very "evangelistic" by our terms. The patristic literature did not emphasize the Great Commission. They didn't have official evangelists, missionaries or mission boards. They did not have exhortations to evangelism (though they had exhortations to martyrdom!). They did not have prayers for the conversion of pagans, though they had prayers asking for God's help to love their pagan neighbors and enemies. And in certain eras, church worship was actually closed to visitors, with deacons at the door serving as bouncers, restricting entrance to the unbaptized. Not the most seeker-sensitive approach to ministry!

And yet the early church grew and grew and grew, even without intentional evangelistic strategy or ministry. How? By being the most attractive community in the Roman Empire. The early Christians rescued abandoned babies and raised them as their own. They gave dignified burials to all, regardless of economic status. They cared for the sick; instead of abandoning the cities in times of plague, they stayed and cared for the sick and dying, even if it meant their own deaths. It was said of the early Christians that "they alone know the right way to live."

It wasn't until after Constantine that conversion became a matter of advantage rather than attraction, or eventually by compulsion. Only after Constantine did people reject the church on moral and ethical grounds and begin to accuse Christians of hypocrisy. Prior to that, the church was known as the people of compassion, love and peace.

It was interesting to ponder how the church could recover that kind of pre-Constantinian attractiveness in our post-Constantinian, post-Christian, postmodern context. For those of us who have struggled with being "evangelistic," it's encouraging to know that the early church grew not because they were distributing gospel tracts but because they were practicing hospitality, neighborliness and social concern for the poor and marginalized. That still seems to me to be a prophetic countercultural stance in today's context.

5 comments:

brad brisco said...

excellent, yes that is were we must return today in regards to being sent and loving our neighbors. I too believe recapturing biblical hospitality is a big part of the picture.

Sivin Kit said...

thanks for highlighting this. ...

Scott Bane said...

This is a great post - thank you for sharing it. I recently learned that I've been missing a big part of what made the early church grow because a limited understanding of one phrase from Acts 4 - "They had all things in common..." I always thought that meant that if I needed something that you had, you would share it with me. I'm sure it meant that, but a recent trip to South Africa taught me a much deeper meaning. What if we all (all the various "brands" of church) started praying for ways to love our neighbors and enemies? What if we all started praying for the boldness and the grace to lay down our own lives? Acts would come alive, wouldn't it!

Thanks again for sharing.

William Hornsby said...

Do you know where I could get a copy of the session on the pre-Constantinian attractiveness of the church that you talk about here? I heard some of this before but would like to read more. Thanks, Billy

Al Hsu said...

Billy - Kreider's paper is now included in the published collection from that conference, now titled Ancient Faith for the Church's Future (IVP, 2008), edited by Mark Husbands and Jeffrey Greenman.

http://www.amazon.com/Ancient-Faith-Churchs-Future-Husbands/dp/0830828818