Other "Thinking Drafts" and writing by Keith Drury -- http://www.indwes.edu/tuesday .
The Myth of the Early Church's Growth.
We were all told about the explosive growth of the early church. How, in spite of persecution Christians shared their faith until we spread like yeast throughout the entire Roman empire, eventually conquering Rome itself when the Emperor Constatine converted. We look back to the first 300 years of church history as the epitome of an exploding church.
There's only one problem with this picture of the early church. It isn't true. It's a myth. Go ahead and work it out on your spreadsheet.
Fill the left column with date, staring with AD 30 (Pentecost) up to AD 2000. In the next column over put the number of Christians. For the year AD 30 say we enter 3000 for those saved at Pentecost.
Now, go down to year 330 and enter what are the best estimates of the number of Christians at that time -- 4 million. Pretty impressive growth of that little mustard seed? Hold your horses. Ask your spreadsheet to figure out what sort of annual net growth that band of 3000 would have needed to wind up 4 million strong in 300 years. Go ahead and try! What will you discover? You'll discover something less than two and a half percent annual growth! Like a church of 200 growing by five people this year.
Whaaaaaat? The early church, which we've always been told had explosive growth, grew only by 2.5 percent per year? Yep. The early church's growth rate was not astounding. Just steady. Many pastors and district superintendents today would be disappointed with two and a half percent growth.
OK, how about since AD 330? If you've got lots of memory in your computer, cut and paste down the calculations and bring the date on up to the year 2000. What will you discover? You'll immediately discover that church growth has slowed down quite a bit since AD 330. (For instance, if we'd continued growing at the phenomenal rate of two and a half percent per year, we'd have a quadrillion times more converts today than there are human being alive! So what do we have? In 2000 AD we've got a bit more than a billion Christians. (OK I know you don't count all those as "real Christians," but, then again, you wouldn't have counted many of the early church folk as "real Christians" either.) So, what sort of growth does it take to get from 4 million in AD 330 to a billion Christians in AD 2000? One percent? Sorry, not that fast! How fast have we grown? Here it is: less then a third of one percent. That's .003!
OK, numbers aren't everything, right? What about "saturation?" Certainly the early church, who had only 4 million, had evangelized so much better that they'd won a greater percentage of the Roman empire? Sorry. The Christians in AD 330 represented about 7% of the Roman Empire's population (and less than 2% of the entire world's population). Today Christians represent about 20% of the world's people. For the early church about AD 300 about one out of every 15 people in the Roman Empire (and only one of every 50 people on the earth) were Christians -- for us it is down to one out of five earthlings.
So, what's the point of all this playtime with spreadsheets? The point is most of our stories about the explosive growth of the early church are myths. Invented stories we repeat because they are useful to us in motivating our people to "catch up" in some sort of evangelistic race. But the truth is God has always built His kingdom. It sometimes grows by spurts and leaps... but most often it grows just like a mustard seed or yeast he told us about: gradually, quietly and steadily, but most of all, surely.
So, is your church keeping up? Are you doing your part?
So what do you think?
To contribute to the thinking on this issue e-mail your response to Tuesday@indwes.edu
By Keith Drury, January, 2000. You are free to transmit, duplicate or distribute this article for non-profit use without permission.