Summary: The spread of Christianity hinges on behavior, not beliefs. The current American lifestyle and institutions that serve it don’t provide Christians the opportunity to truly behave like Christians. In order for true church growth to occur, Christians have to be trained to live like healthy families.
In the last post, we learned the apostle Paul pointed out 4 major characteristics of healthy families in his New Testament writings. They were affection, unity, sharing and loyalty. In a healthy Kingdom community, these characteristics will be consistently and frequently present.
Beliefs don’t cause church growth
In fact, the Church grew and expanded in the first place because of these characteristics. The society that it was born into was passionately pagan. By default, people believed in many gods and called Christians “atheists.” This was because the Christians didn’t believe in those gods.
As you know, they were even killed for their beliefs. So obviously their beliefs is not what caused the first wave of church growth.
Instead, take a look at how Joseph Hellerman describes it in When the Church Was a Family…
To arrive at a truly comprehensive explanation for the expansion of Christianity, we must move beyond ideology (beliefs) and enter into the social world (behavior) of the early Christians. We must understand how Christians related with one another and with their pagan neighbors.
Nobody did it better than Christians
The pagan political leaders of the day openly admitted that when it came to love of one’s neighbor, there was no group that did it better than the Christians. And the thing was, they didn’t just love their Christian neighbors. They loved their pagan ones as well. Here’s what one pagan emperor (Julian) said about the Christians (he calls them athiests) in the 300s…
Why do we not observe that it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done the most to increase athiesm? When the impious Galileans support not only their own poor, but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.
We don’t live the lifestyle
Obviously, this same testimony can’t be said about the Church today in America. Therefore, we know there’s something awry with our behavior. But I don’t think it’s because of our hearts. Plenty of people desire New Testament Christianity. I think it’s because of our lifestyles. The root of the problem is systemic.
If we lived like they did, we would have the opportunity to behave like they did. If Christians were trained to live like families, they would also need to be trained to behave like families.
Unfortunately, the dominant church model (institutional) in our culture today simply doesn’t allow for this. We might experience a faint taste at times. But a family lifestyle isn’t consistently and frequently present.
Instead of being counter-cultural and living in Kingdom communities as we were meant to, the institutional model serves the culture and those that are content to live an isolated American lifestyle.
By its nature, it allows members to compartmentalize the Christian life so that it’s A priority, but not the #1 priority. It’s a side dish to your main meal (physical family, house, job, retirement plan, etc.). It’s something people are involved in because they believe in Christ and want to grow in Him. But it’s not something they lose themselves in for the good of the whole.
Church growth isn’t happening
Therein lies the rub. Christians in America desire the experience of the Christian family. But they’re not required to live a sacrificial lifestyle that brings it forth.
They desire affection. But they easily run away from the conflict that births it instead of staying to work through it. They desire unity. But they’re permitted to live individualistic lifestyles. They desire sharing. But, they’re enabled to spend most of their time building their own empires. They desire loyalty. But they easily cut ties with those that have different points of view or belong to a different social class or race.
To put it plainly, the American individualistic lifestyle is tolerated.
Under the institutional model, the standards for inclusion into a church family are low or even non-existent. Instead, people are essentially begged to join. Special programs are run to try to attract members. They are told they can “come as they are” and “go as they please.” This is usually in the name of “evangelism” and church growth.
People’s lifestyles are essentially hidden because the members don’t live life together. They simply show up on a campus with their social selves and call it Christian living. Some of these churches can have absolutely huge growth numbers. But they have no expansive power.
The data shows it. Maybe your church is growing. But THE Church isn’t growing. People are just flocking to the institutions that execute the best business plans while others struggle or close their doors.
When the standards are so low, how can we expect the family to be healthy? In a healthy family, every member is expected to contribute in the ways they’re able to. If they don’t, they go without the blessings the family has access to. If they continue to take and take without giving sacrificially of themselves, they eventually get cut off from the family. They can find someplace else to live.
Until we live together
The early churches behaved so differently. Here’s what a Christian apologist (Justin Martyr) from that time said about the behavior of the early Christians in Rome…
We who took most pleasure in the means of increasing our wealth and property now bring what we have into a common fund and share with everyone in need; we who hated and killed one another and would not associate with men of different tribes because of their different customs, now…live together.
Don’t look at the numbers. Show me where THIS is going on and there you are likely to find a mature, healthy church with the greatest (and only) true church growth strategy.
The rest of the posts in the Collectivist Community series are here.