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.