When I first began pastoring, I had a pretty defined philosophy on how to lead a church. It was a philosophy that had been formed and shaped in large part by the current cultural trends of modern American church leadership. The components were as follows:
- Do everything (short of sin) that you can do to attract people to your Sunday morning gatherings.
- Your “wins” must be measurable (e.g. “How many were in attendance?” “How many were newcomers?” “How many got baptized?” “How many went through the Growth Track?” “How many people served at the last outreach?” “How many…?”).
- The biggest “win” of the Sunday morning gathering is getting people “saved.”
- You must get people constantly moving to the “next step” (“Now that you said ‘Yes’ to Jesus, have you registered for water baptism?” “Now that you’ve been baptized, have you joined a small group?” “Now that you’ve joined a small group, have you thought about helping to lead a group next semester?” Et cetera.).
There are other components as well, but you get the drift. Now, I hope I don’t come across as being cynical or dismissive. Because any healthy pastor wants people moving forward, and indeed, there are times when tangible, measurable steps are involved. I am not categorically against any of these things at all. My church certainly utilizes several of these components. But…
Earlier this year I finished reading Alan Kreider’s The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. I am not overstating it when I say that it may be the most important book I have read in regards to church leadership. And it’s not really about church leadership. It’s a historical examination of the unfathomable growth and expansion of the Christian movement at the very beginning of its existence.
During the first 250 years or so of the Christian movement, Christianity grew at a rate of approximately 40 percent per decade. That’s mind-blowing. And most of this occurred amidst a period of time when Christianity was outlawed by the Roman Empire, during which there were occasional seasons of widespread, systematized persecution.
While reading Kreider’s book, there were several things that were absolutely fascinating (and sometimes shocking) to learn about the early Christian movement.
First of all, the numerical growth of the Christian movement was not the product of strategic planning and human ingenuity. The emphasis was on becoming people who were being formed by Christ and embodying his teachings:
- “[The growth] was uncoordinated, it was unpredictable, and it seemed unstoppable.”
- “Christian leaders didn’t think or write about how to systematize the spread of Christianity.”
- “The Christians’ focus was not on ‘saving’ people or recruiting them; it was on living faithfully-in the belief that when people’s lives are rehabituated in the way of Jesus, others will want to join them.”
- “Before Constantine, …the church was growing steadily, but its leaders gave little thought to the means of its numerical growth. They worshiped God, God changed the worshipers and their communities, and outsiders were attracted to Christians whose lives and communities reflected God’s character.”
What attracted non-believers to Christianity was simply the way Christians lived:
- “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.’ …Christianity’s truth was visible; it was embodied and enacted by its members. It was made tangible…”
- “Care for poor people was another area in which the Christian communities had habits and approaches that posed questions for contemporaries. Outsiders looked at this and were impressed.”
- “Justin asserted that the church’s growth was a product of the Christians’ distinctive approach to enemies. Why do Christians love and pray for and persuade their enemies? So the enemies will become brothers…”
Churches would not allow unbaptized people into their worship gatherings. And they wouldn’t baptize people until they had been thoroughly assimilated into the Christian way of life:
- “…entering the church was difficult…It required a period of formation that lasted for considerable periods of time and that changed the candidates’ thought and reflexes.”
- “…there were enough experiences of persecution to persuade the Christians in Athens that if ‘lying informers’ were allowed into their services, the results might be ‘our slaughter.'”
- “Has the candidate’s character changed so that it reflects the virtues and practices of the church? If so, the church will baptize them as Christians.”
- “Christians did not worry that absence of the pagans from their services constituted a lost opportunity. Their worship was not evangelistic; it was not ‘seeker sensitive.’ Their intent in worshiping was to glorify God rather than to attract outsiders. And since they believed that authentic worship formed the worshipers, they believed that in the course of time the behavior of those so formed would attract outsiders.”
- “How could the Christians undercut this approach to mission? By admitting new people too quickly whose behavior compromised the Christians’ distinctive attractiveness.”
Evangelism was certainly happening, but it was natural and organic:
- “How then did the church grow? Scholars have seen the church’s growth as coming about through something modest: ‘casual contact.’ Contact could come about in innumerable ways through the translocal networks of family and profession in which most people participated. Masters interacted with slaves; residents met neighbors; and above all believers networked with relatives and work colleagues. In all these relationships, ‘affective bonds’ were formed.”
- “They cared for non-Christian plague victims, not so the victims would become Christians, but because the Christians’ behavior reflected the character of the God whom the Christians worshiped.”
- “The believers’ generosity probably led to the church’s growth, but growth was not the reason for their generosity.”
So what to make of all this? I am not sure. Again, it is important to keep in mind that the early Christian movement operated under a very different geo-political environment than the 21st-century Western Church. We are not under systematic persecution, therefore, we do not have to consider the risks of allowing non-believers (possible “informers”) into our worship gatherings. Nor are we restricted from the concept of implementing coordinated outreach efforts in our communities, because Christianity is not outlawed. I am not suggesting that these liberties we enjoy should be abandoned.
But in the midst of our conventional outreach strategies and sleek structures and processes, what is the quality of our Christian witness to our culture? We may be excelling in attaining numerical goals (“We led X amount of people through the Growth Track last year!”), but are we a people who are being formed by the Sermon on the Mount?
Are we growing in our love for our enemies? Matthew 5:44 (“Love your enemies”) is, by the way, the most frequently quoted text by the early church fathers, according to Kreider.
Are we being known and recognized for being people of mercy? For being peacemakers? For being patient during hardship?
I have come to believe that the greatest and most effective witness for Christ in the 21st-century Western world will not emerge from the stylistic appeal of our worship gatherings. Nor will it emerge from some brilliant outreach or assimilation strategy (though these may be important components).
It will emerge from a remnant of people who have become so thoroughly transformed and “kingdomized” …who have allowed the transformative power of the Holy Spirit to infiltrate every fiber of their being and every extremity of their lives, that the society around them cannot help but sit up and take notice.
“These people have been with Jesus.”
(The photo above was taken at the Mount of Beatitudes off the coast of the Sea of Galilee on November 28th, 2017).