Recently, I have been reading some of the earliest literary sources we have about the life of the church in first three centuries. What is striking is how much the dominant culture noticed the alternative way of these Christians. Tertullian, a second century Christian, wrote that “it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. ‘See, they say, how they love one another.’ Tertullian remarks that this mutual love was in stark contrast to the “mutual hatred that prevailed in Roman society.”
Another early Christian, Justin Martyr, described the transformation that had taken place in the lives of Christians: “We who used to value the acquisition of wealth and possessions more than anything else now bring what we have into a common fund and share it with anyone who needs it. We used to hate and destroy one another and refused to associate with people of another race or country. Now, because of Christ, we live together with such people and pray for our enemies.”
In his book, The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark argues that the tremendous growth in the number of Christians over the first three centuries, from around a 1000 in the year 40 to over 6,000,000 in the year 300 was the result of the Church’s extraordinary capacity to respond to the misery, chaos, fear and brutality of urban life in Greco-Roman culture. For people dislocated by a callous society, the love and care of the Christian community was Good News indeed!
Every Church should want to grow, but the question is how. The only growth strategy the church should ever consider is a way of life that is Good News. In a market driven culture, churches are constantly tempted to develop growth schemes that have more to do with marketing campaigns than their contrary way of life. When you think about it, our society is not so different from Roman society. Many citizens in this country live amidst much suffering, fear, chaos and mean-spiritedness. In such a world, what a breath of fresh air a loving and caring Church community can be. However, if the church simply reflects the callous society, we shouldn’t be surprised if the average person has no interest.
Towards the end of his ministry, Jesus commanded his disciples “to love one another.” He knew that their life together and the mission of the church depended on their care for one another. Let us keep loving one another; it is what we need and it is what the world around us is longing for.