By Thomas Lambrecht
As a declining denomination in the midst of cultural headwinds becoming increasingly hostile to Christianity, we wonder how to be a growing, vital church. Although I have served as a pastor and have been a member of growing congregations at one time or another, I have never in my church membership life been part of a growing United Methodist denomination. That is true of all active clergy in our church today.
Many programs have been tried and much ink spilled in trying to foster a denominational turnaround. The results, however, have been unsuccessful denomination-wide. Our decline is only accelerating as our church gets older. Certainly, the long-running conflict over theology and moral teaching has not helped.
As we think about a new traditionalist Methodist denomination that will no longer have conflict over doctrine and morals, how can we best approach our new societal situation, where Christianity is no longer privileged and the church as an institution is no longer respected?
In some ways, we are returning to the situation experienced by the early church in the first three centuries. Upon the recommendation of others, I have found the book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church by the late church historian Alan Kreider to be extremely helpful in unpacking the factors that led the early church to grow.
How the Early Church Grew
Growth in the early church after the first apostles’ generation died out was not primarily due to missions or evangelism. The seeds had been planted around the Mediterranean world, and they grew from there. Kreider summarizes, “According to the evidence at our disposal, the expansion of the churches was not organized, the product of a mission program; it simply happened. Further, the growth was not carefully thought through. Early Christian leaders did not engage in debates between rival ‘mission strategies.’ … The Christians … did not write a single treatise on evangelism. … [In] the best surviving summary of catechetical topics, … not one of them admonishes the new believers to share the gospel with the gentiles. Early Christian preachers do not appeal to the ‘Great Commission’ in Matthew 28:19-20 to inspire their members to ‘make disciples of all nations.’ … Most improbable of all, the churches did not use their worship services to attract new people. In the aftermath of the persecution of Nero in A.D. 68, churches around the empire … closed their doors to outsiders.”
In short, many of the strategies and programs we use today to grow the church played no role in the early Christian centuries up until the Emperor Constantine I began promoting Christianity in A.D. 313.
What caused the church to grow? Kreider identifies several factors. The primary factor he identifies is the “patient ferment” of the church – the bubbling up of spiritual life in the lives of believers that over time attracted tens of thousands of individual new believers, a few at a time, into the growing church.
This approach is summed up in a quote from the writer Cyprian (A.D. 256), “We do not speak great things but we live them.” As Kreider explains it, “Christians, said Cyprian, are to be visibly distinctive. They are to live their faith and communicate it in deeds, and their deeds are to embody patience. Patientia: when Christians make this virtue visible and active, they demonstrate the character of God to the world.” And it is this distinctive, lived-out faith that becomes attractive over time to people unfulfilled by the world’s pleasures and possessions.
The key is that “Christians and their communities must live a life of integrity with no discrepancy between words and deeds,” Kreider states. “Outsiders will judge the Christians not so much by what they say (most people won’t listen to them anyway) as by what they are and do.”
Early Church Examples
How did this work out in practice? According to Justin Martyr (about A.D. 150), it meant living out Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Be patient with others. Be servants to all. When struck on one cheek, turn to them the other (rather than taking revenge). If compelled to go one mile, go two. Do not be angry. Do not quarrel. As Justin put it, “Let your good works shine before men, that they as they see may wonder at your Father who is in heaven.”
In their business lives, Christians were to act with integrity. They were “to speak the unadorned truth about a product they were selling.” Perhaps it meant refusing to retaliate when mistreated by another businessperson. It could have meant refusing to engage in litigation in the law courts.
In an extremely licentious culture, Christians were committed to sexual purity. Justin “points to Christians in Rome ‘and in every nation’ who have repudiated adulterous glances,” avoided polygamy, and committed themselves to a lifelong Christian understanding of sexual restraint and fidelity. By embracing this new ethic, the early church attracted “to the faith an ‘uncounted multitude of those who have turned away from’” sexual licentiousness.
In a rigidly hierarchical society, Christians created a heterogeneous community of rich and poor, nobles, working class, and laborers, masters and slaves, men and women, older adults as well as children. They formed a new type of family that incorporated all its members, including those most despised by society, on an equal and integral basis.
In a society where 90 percent of the people were powerless, Christians experienced the power of God at work in their lives. Miracles were part of their regular experience through the exorcism of demons and the healing of disease. And the leaders of a church were just as likely to be slaves as to be wealthy.
In a society where “65 percent of the population lived close to or below the subsistence level” and it was often “every man for himself,” Christians were known for caring for their poor. As we see in the book of Acts, churches would collect money and donations to provide food and clothing to those in need.
In a brutal society where life was cheap, Origen (about A.D. 250) stipulated, “refusing to participate in ‘the taking of human life in any form at all’ was a basic Christian commitment.” Christians refused to retaliate. They opposed and undermined the gladiatorial games (one of the primary means of mass entertainment, like today’s football). They “said no to abortion or to putting unwanted infants to death by exposure.” And in the early years, this commitment ruled out Christians serving in the Roman legions.
Under persecution, Christians were often courageous. They were not afraid to suffer or die for their faith because they were assured of a heavenly reality following death. They were conscious that they were imitating Jesus, who also suffered and died. Their calmness in the face of persecution stunned and attracted unbelievers.
This countercultural lifestyle appealed to people who were unsatisfied or unfulfilled by the world’s way of living. It prompted questions and inquiries that led to sharing of “the reason for the hope that is within us” (I Peter 3:15). This led to joining a catechism class for an extended time of learning and preparation before one was baptized and received into the membership of the church. There is much more to Kreider’s thesis than I have been able to share here, but this aspect is instructive for how we can promote a growing and vital church.
The Wesleyan Example
John Wesley knew that lifestyle was as important as doctrine. That is why he put forward the General Rules for those joining the Methodist movement. “There is only one condition previously required of those who desire admission into these [Methodist] societies: ‘a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.’ But wherever this is really fixed in the soul it will be shown by its fruits. It is therefore expected of all who continue [within the Methodist societies] that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation” by doing no harm, doing good, and attending upon all the ordinances of God (the means of grace).
The General Rules are very specific about the kinds of behaviors that were expected of Methodists.
In a society where alcoholism was rampant, Methodists were expected to avoid “drunkenness: buying or selling spirituous liquors, or drinking them, unless in cases of extreme necessity.”
In a society where slaveholding was common, Methodists were expected to avoid “slaveholding; buying or selling slaves.”
In a society experiencing personal conflict and violence, Methodists were to avoid “fighting, quarreling, brawling, brother going to law with brother; returning evil for evil, or railing for railing.”
In a country where smuggling and the black market were a constant practice, Methodists were to avoid “buying or selling goods that have not paid the duty.”
In a society where ostentatious displays of wealth were expected, Methodists were to avoid “putting on of gold and costly apparel.”
In their personal lives, Methodists were expected to avoid “uncharitable or unprofitable conversation; particularly speaking evil of magistrates [government officials] or of ministers.” They were to avoid “such diversions as cannot be used in the name of the Lord Jesus” and “singing those songs, or reading those books, which do not tend to the knowledge or love of God.” They were to avoid “laying up treasure upon earth” or “borrowing without a probability of paying.”
In a time when Methodists were ridiculed and persecuted, they were expected to “do good, especially to them that are of the household of faith or [striving] to be; employing them preferably to others; buying one of another, helping each other in business, and so much the more because the world will love its own and them only.”
The distinctive lifestyle and countercultural expectations of Methodists was not a deterrent, but a positive factor in the growth of Methodism in its first century. When Methodism began to compromise with the world and try to blend in or “be relevant,” it began to plateau and decline in relation to the size of the population.
Implications for Today
Doctrine, what we believe as Christians, is highly important. But if our lives contradict our beliefs, the world will not be interested in what we say we stand for.
Evangelical Protestantism has become so fixated on the Reformation truth that we are saved by grace through faith, and not by works, that we have forgotten the necessity of living the life of faith. We spend much energy on getting people to say the “sinner’s prayer” or commit their lives to Jesus Christ (which is essential), but neglect to help disciples form their lives to live as Jesus did. We emphasize forgiveness and grace more than holiness. As someone has said, American Christianity is more American than Christian.
Of course, we cannot live the Christian life by human effort alone, and our ability to exhibit a holy character is not what saves us. We come to Jesus as we are, he accepts us as we are, he welcomes us into his family, and he offers us the chance to become like him. We depend upon the power of the Holy Spirit to truly transform our desires and affections, as we nurture our relationship with the Lord through prayer, study of God’s word, worship, spiritual fellowship, and the other means of grace. As we are transformed on the inside, our outward behavior will change. But our outward behavior is an indicator of the extent of our inner transformation.
Our churches will not grow until people see that following Jesus Christ makes a difference in our lives. We must stop trying to blend in to the culture and instead be willing to live counter to the culture as Christians. Authentic Christians down through history have always been thought “strange” by an unbelieving world. We ought not to shy away from high expectations for how we as Christians are to live and act.
Evangelism programs and missional strategies are good and helpful. But people will not buy what we are selling unless they see that it works in making our lives different and more fulfilling than theirs. Otherwise, why make the sacrifices that being a Christian entails?