Tim Keller has a post on “What We Need to Learn from the Early Church.” How is it that the church grew so dramatically at the very time when the culture was so hostile towards it? Keller names three reasons:
- Christians were called into a unique ‘social project’ that both offended and attracted people....
- Christianity offered a direct, personal, love relationship with the Creator God....
- Christianity offered assurance of eternal life.
These are the same things we ought to offer our hostile culture today:
The earliest church was seen as too exclusive and a threat to the social order because it would not honor all deities; today Christians are again being seen [as] exclusive and a threat to the social order because we will not honor all identities.
Yet the early church thrived in that situation. Why?
One reason was that Christians were ridiculed as too exclusive and different. And yet many were drawn to Christianity because it was different. If a religion isn’t different from the surrounding culture—if it doesn’t critique and offer an alternative to it—it dies because it’s seen as unnecessary. If Christians today were also famous for and marked by chastity, generosity and justice, multi-ethnicity, and peacemaking—would it not be compelling to many? Ironically, Christians were “out of step” with the culture on sex to begin with, and it wasn’t the church but the culture that eventually changed.
Another reason Christianity thrived was because it offered things no other culture or religion even claimed to have—a love relationship with God and salvation by free grace. It is the same today. No other religion offers these things, nor does secularism. Nor can the “spiritual but not religious” option really capture them either. These are still unique “value offers” and can be lifted up to a spiritually hungry and thirsty population.
The early church surely looked like it was on the “wrong side of history,” but instead it changed history with a dogged adherence to the biblical gospel. That should be our aspiration as well.
I take that last sentence to mean it should be our aspiration to have a dogged adherence to the biblical Gospel, expressing all aspects of what it means to follow Christ, not that our aspiration should be to change history by using the biblical Gospel as a tool. The Gospel and our life in Christ are not means to an end. Rather, they are our focus. God may use our faithfulness to grow the church dramatically, as He did in the first three centuries, or He may not. That’s up to Him. But one thing is for sure: we would be fools to place changing our society above the Gospel, adjusting aspects of Christianity in order to fashion a religion we think would be more appealing to our culture. That’s not how God worked then, and according to this study, it isn’t how He works now.
We have one job: be faithful, no matter the cost. God does beautiful things with this.