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The Slow Way Is The Fast Way

In this season of Lent, it’s worth remembering how to “hurry slowly”

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Editor’s Note:  Most Saturdays we will feature this “Editor’s Notebook” column. MinistryWatch President Warren Smith will offer his opinion on stories in the week’s news or, sometimes, offer a behind-the-scenes look at how and why we do what we do.

We live in an age of rapid change and instant gratification. “Outreach” magazine publishes an annual list of the fastest growing churches in America. Christian publishers seek authors with “platforms.” The church now pays more attention to social media influencers and leadership coaches than pastors.

The forces of the current cultural moment make it easy to forget how Christianity has grown in the past.

Sociologist Rodney Stark has thought deeply about this issue. He broke new ground a generation ago with his studies of the early church. In books such as The Rise of Christianity he used demographic data to piece together a fascinating portrait of the early Christian church.

Stark asked: “How was it done? How did a tiny and obscure messianic movement from the edge of the Roman Empire dislodge classical paganism and become the dominant faith of Western civilization?”

Evangelical Christians would do well to ask the same question today. We are no longer a tiny and obscure movement. We are in some ways too rich and powerful for our own good. We may not be trying to dislodge classical paganism, but a neo-paganism has emerged. Our spiritual adversaries, now as then, often take the form of Gnosticism, or lukewarm “cultural Christians” who are not unlike the Laodicean church mentioned in the New Testament.

Our age, really, is not so different from the first century church.

The Slow Way Is The Fast Way

So, what was Stark’s answer?

First, he used a variety of biblical and historical sources to conclude that the number of Christians in the known world did not exceed 10,000 by the end of the first century. By the end of the second century, the number of Christians had risen to about 200,000. That’s a growth rate of only about 3.42 percent per year.

However, anyone who understands the “miracle of compound interest” can guess what happens next. This small but inexorable growth rate produced about a million Christians by the year 250 A.D. They became six million Christians by AD 300. By the year AD 350, Christians made up a majority of the Roman Empire.

It’s important to note that for much of that time, Christians were subjected to widespread persecution. It is also important to note that even by the mid-third century, church buildings were nonexistent, prohibited by law. Persecution also made large-scale rallies impossible.

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In other words, it was not by using the tools that the modern evangelical church places so much stock in—media, communications, and mass rallies. The growth of the early church came about by less glamorous means. Christians cared for one another, so they lived longer and were therefore able to better care for their own children. That meant Christian children were more likely to survive childhood diseases and reach childbearing years.

Also, in a culture where infanticide—especially of little girls— was common, Christians took in girl babies from non-Christian families. As a consequence, Stark says the Christian community may have been 60 percent female in the second and third centuries, largely because of these adoptions.

A second and equally vital reason for the growth of Christianity was not just the loving care given by Christians to their brothers and sisters in the Lord, but also to the secular communities around them.

Late in the second century, around 165, a great epidemic hit the Roman Empire, a catastrophe sometimes called the Plague of Galen. It’s possible that 25 percent of the Roman Empire perished in this plague. Another great plague struck the empire about a hundred years later.

Dionysius, an Egyptian bishop of the Coptic Church from 248 to 264, wrote a moving letter that has become famous among historians, but little known by modern evangelicals. This letter beautifully testifies to the posture of Christians of the era and explains why many Christians survived the plagues and why many non-Christians looked at the church with awe, respect, and wonder. Here’s a portion of that letter:

Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick . . . ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead. The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen.

Rodney Stark’s well-documented analysis of the growth of the early church involved much more than just these factors. But it does not overstate the case by much to say that most of the growth of the church of the first four centuries could be attributed to the fact that Christians had larger and healthier families than adherents of other religions. When the children of Christians reached adulthood—because they had been raised in the nurture and admonition of the Lord—they firmly embraced the faith of their fathers and mothers.

In short, Christians – even when persecuted and robbed of cultural and political power – sacrificed themselves for each other and their neighbors. They became a peculiar people, a people other people wanted to emulate. That’s how Christianity grew.

The Old Order Mennonites

Is it possible for such unspectacular means to produce spectacular ends today, in the 21st century?

To answer that question, it’s worth considering the Old Order Mennonites.

Old Order Mennonites are also known as “horse-and-buggy” or “Wenger” Mennonites after one of their former bishops, Joseph Wenger. The group gives us a unique opportunity to look at a rapidly growing religious group in the modern era that has completely eschewed modern church-growth techniques. In fact, the group owes its creation to a disdain for modernity.

The Old Order Mennonites got their start when about two hundred families, in 1927, split from other Mennonites who wanted to allow the use of automobiles. According to sociology professor Donald Kraybill, by 2009 those two hundred families had grown to about 18,000 people scattered over nine states, though most of them lived in rural areas such as the Finger Lakes region of New York and parts of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

But now we are seeing the impact of that “miracle of compound interest.” It took 80 years for the Old Order to grow to 18,000. But in the next dozen years their numbers approached 80,000, and they spread to other regions. They have significant communities in Tennessee, Maryland, Minnesota, and Illinois, plus the Canadian province of Manitoba.

Kraybill said there are two reasons for the growth. First is the high fertility rate of the Old Order Mennonites. They have more than eight children per family. Second is the intensive discipleship of children. Nearly 90 percent of their young people stay in the religion when they reach adulthood. Though their growth rates have slowed, Kraybill estimates the number of Old Order Mennonites will continue to double in size every 15 to 20 years.

If he’s right, by the year 2100, Old Order Mennonites could be one of the largest denominations in the nation. Much sooner than that, in the next decade or two, Old Order Mennonites will have more adherents than the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, and other once powerful Protestant denominations.

Kraybill reported some new pressures on the group. For example, the group has grown so fast that it owns most of the land in its home regions. Extended families are buying land farther and farther from the original homesteads, a phenomenon that makes it tough for these families—most of whom still won’t drive automobiles—to maintain family cohesion. Nonetheless, Kraybill estimated the fundamentals of high fertility rates and intentional spiritual formation practices will keep the growth rate strong for years to come.

So, does this entire discussion amount to little more than – in the words of John Prine’s humorous song – “blow up your TV” and “move to the country”? No, of course not. But it does, I think, involve recovering obedience to God’s command to be fruitful and multiply? As the old saying goes, “The future belongs to the fruitful.”

But what does fruitfulness look like for the individual, for the family, and for the church? I am not willing to say that it means, or only means, having bigger families, more children. (Though I don’t think we should ignore that possibility.) I do think this discussion should drive us back to first principles. What does the Bible say about fruitfulness and faithfulness? Do we have examples of how Jesus behaved when his disciples wanted to make him king, a political ruler? What does history teach us? Did Jesus take the fast way, or the slow way?

Festina lente is a Latin expression that means “hurry slowly.” You might recognize that lente sounds remarkably like Lent, the season in which the Christian church now finds itself. The season of Lent is the annual reminder that we should slow down. It is a reminder that instant gratification is rarely the right answer. That true fruitfulness comes, as Eugene Peterson said, from “long obedience in the same direction.”

In this era of media, platform, and celebrity, this is a lesson worth learning again.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The photo at the top of this story depicts the ruins of the formerly magnificent Temple of Artemis, in Ephesus.

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Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.