I‘m reading Rodney Stark’s excellent book Cities of God right now. One of the main claims he makes is that early Christianity did not spread through mass conversions or “revival” meetings, where thousands became Christians in an instant.
Now, that is not to disclaim Acts 2:37-42 which says a sermon by Peter caused “three thousand souls” to present themselves for baptism. “Even so,” says Stark, “the result would not have been three thousand converts, only three thousand wet Jews and pagans. One sermon, no matter how dynamic, does not prompt the fundamental shift of identity essential to a religious conversion.”
Also, the kind of revival atmospheres that were witnessed during the Great Awakenings in America were not really about people converting to Christianity, but rather Christians intensifying their commitment to living out their faith. I suggest that what we are starting to see in America is more reminiscent of the environment of the early church than 17th-century America.
So, given that early Christianity seemed to spread organically and steadily through relational networks and the slow process of true conversion, where one shifts their basic identity and allegiance, how should this inform how we do ministry today?
I suggest that the emphasis placed on the “big event” (especially prominent in evangelical and charismatic circles) needs to stop. So many times we seem to be chasing after that one moment that will somehow change everything forever. If we can just get to that conference, get that prophet to pray for us, sing that song one more time, then we’ll be face to face with God and it will all be different. We plan events this way, advertise them this way (don’t miss the Event! You’ll never be the same!), and yet, time after time, we walk away pretty much the same as when we went in.
Two Sundays ago the Gospel reading at Christ Church focused on the transfiguration of Jesus. For Peter, James, and John it’s the ultimate mountaintop experience! They have arrived at the best singular transcendent moment of all time: Moses, Elijah, Jesus! The kingdom had truly come! An amazing experience, and yet even that beautiful experience doesn’t transform them immediately. In fact it seems to do nothing in the moment. They walk back down the mountain and walk with Jesus toward Jerusalem, where they’ll all fail miserably, betraying Jesus and running away in a magnificent display of cowardice.
The transfiguration didn’t transform the disciples spiritually. But in the end they were transformed. What happened? Three years of being with Jesus to learn from Jesus how to be like Jesus is what happened. The truth is that the big event rarely makes much difference after it’s all said and done. What truly makes a difference is what Eugene Peterson called “a long obedience in the same direction.” Consistent and steady growth as disciples of Jesus, and a consistent witness to the outside world that a new kingdom had arrived, and anyone who wanted to participate could enter.
Jeremy Griffin says
Excellent thoughts. I usually compare the big events that try to convert masses of people in an instant with a used car sales man. You don't, well shouldn't, by a used car from someone after a great "pitch" without counting the cost of the car and researching about the car (run a car fax). We can't expect people to know what they are signing up for in evangelist sales pitch, i.e. counting the cost of following Christ.
Ben Sternke says
That's a good analogy, Jeremy. I think our job as witnesses of Christ is to simply report what we have seen, and not try to put some kind of "gloss" on the Christian life that makes it more "palatable" to whomever we are speaking with.
Jeremy Griffin says
You are right Ben. We need to report on what we have seen done in Jesus, and what he has done in others, without trying to down play what it is really like to follow Christ.
Ben Sternke says
So true! Someone told me they heard Dallas Willard say in a lecture once that "the greatest crisis facing the evangelical church today is leaders whose character cannot bear their gifting."
Jerry Sweany says
Thanks for the thoughtful article. I agree with you for the most part…but I would also say that God can use any event He wants for His purposes. He has used events and still does to move His Kingdom forward. Though the emphasis must be discipleship…I believe there is plenty of room for events that may cause the individual to question his or her spiritual position in life.