Thursday, September 12, 2013

What's Special about Christianity? - parts 3 and 4

Part 3 – Why Christianity Grew

   How can we explain the astonishing growth of Christianity in the ancient world? In the year 100, Christians were a mere 1/100th of 1% of the population; by the year 200 they made up 2%, and by 300, 50% of the people were Christian!

Sometimes debunkers of Christianity chalk this up to the Emperor Constantine - as if he suddenly declared everyone in the empire must be Christian. But half the people were Christians two decades before Constantine came to power!

Christians had some peculiar, wonderful ideas, and a deep passion for ultimate truth - and we'll get to all this next week. But outsiders observed that the Christians multiplied, not because their ideas were more persuasive, but because of the unusual, downright revolutionary way that they loved.

Late in the 2nd century, Tertullian explained: "It is our care of the helpless, our practice of lovingkindness that brands us in the eyes of our opponents. They say, 'See how they love!'" Two centuries later, when the emperor Julian tried to stamp out Christianity, he sourly complained, "Those impious Galileans (the Christians) support not only their own poor, but ours as well. Everyone can see that our people laid aid from us."

The pagan world Christians encountered was cruel. The sick and dying were cast aside. Newborns with defects were left to die. Women had no rights, slavery was common. Cities were overpopulated - and it was the Church that pioneered ways to cope with urban problems, offering hope to the hungry, homeless, widows, orphans, those burned out of their homes, the sick and dying. They cared, even for strangers, even for non-Christians - and not just heartfelt care but practical care. Instead of being a private club, the Church offered a sense of belonging to any and everybody. They loved - and that is why Christianity won the day.

Could it be that the hope of a slowly shrinking Christianity in our culture isn't slick ad campaigns or catchy worship styles, but the simple, harder but doable practice of caring, loving, finding those in dire straits and becoming family to them?

Let us pray: "Lord, we wish people were astonished by the way we love the hurting, the hungry, the hard to love, the homeless. I want to be in sync with Jesus, who certainly cared for the suffering. I'm ready to stop procrastinating, and to get involved and do something, even if I may not do it all that well. I want to be like the Christians of old."


Part 4 – A Changed America

Sometimes I hear older Christians fretting over the tremors and then the avalanche of change in the religious landscape of America over the past couple of generations.  Once upon a time (or so we vaguely recall) America was more “Christian.”  You could assume most people were churchgoing members, and that public displays of Bible things was not just permitted but encouraged.  Now the churches are shrinking, other faiths are growing stronger all around us.  How to be a Christian when you aren’t the majority any longer?

   Our memory may be faulty.  Scholars have tracked church attendance over many decades – and as it turns out, people a century or two ago didn’t go more or less than we do; the trend oscillates up and down.  Was there more religious fervor before laws changed, or before science elbowed belief out of the way?  It’s hard to say.  Many people were quite pious, but others went through the motions, or under social pressure; people still drank too much, cheated on spouses, and clung to abysmal ideas about people of different races.

   The earliest Christians harbored no nostalgia about the good old days.  They were brand new, and tiny; nobody had heard of them.  We may think Christianity gets dissed these days; we may feel sad you can’t have Christian prayer in public.  But the first Christians were harassed, beaten, cut off from business deals, imprisoned, and sometimes executed.  The other religions had grand buildings, big crowds, and government support.  Nobody joined a church because it seemed like a “nice” thing to do; the decision was harrowing, risky, deadly serious.

   But then a huge change in the 4th century:  the emperor Constantine made Christianity something of the official religion of the empire.  Soon, most people were Christian.  But were they?  If everybody is a Christian, if it’s pretty much the same as having a pulse, does it mean anything?  Hadn’t it been somehow more meaningful when it was harder, when a courageous decision was required?  We may be nearing a day when to be a Christian is a hard, costly choice – and that may be surprisingly beneficial.  Jesus meant us to take this stuff seriously…

   “Lord, we see slippage in Christianity’s numbers and place in society.  We feel more and more a minority.  Show us the blessing in this, remind us of our kinship to the first Christians and their religious world, reveal to us what’s at stake, what really matters, and the real heart of following Jesus – and maybe then we might stem the tide?”