An accurate understanding the city’s relationship to the early church reveals how Christians lived out and embraced the kingdom of God as a way of life in their particular cultural settings. The aim of such an analysis is not to find a strategic “silver bullet” that will allow the church to return to the growth pattern of its early years. Rather, a more profitable way of reading Scripture as it relates to the early expansion of the church recognizes that missions is not so much about strategies of evangelism as it is about meeting God where he is already at work and living purposefully in the ways of Jesus, the Christ.
The discussion of where to initiate new mission efforts has for many years involved the consideration of the appropriate size of a city for such a work. Cities have almost always been the target of new efforts of evangelization for many reasons—the most obvious of which is the potential of larger numbers of conversions where larger groupings of people live and work. Roland Allen’s classic work Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?, first published in 1912, raised the question of Paul’s use of the city in his missionary strategies. To be more specific, Allen focused on Paul’s strategy to permeate the Roman provinces with the gospel. However, Allen explicitly mentions Paul’s use of major cities as points of proclamation within a province—a city where there would be much coming in and going out.1 Allen was convinced Paul intentionally planted evangelistic churches at such strategic locations so that such churches would be “sources of rivers, mints from which the new coin of the Gospel was spread in every direction. . . . [Paul’s] method of work was so designed that centres of intellectual and commercial activity became centres of Christian activity.”2
In Wayne A. Meeks’s preface to the second edition of his work The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul, he writes:
The urbanization that Alexander, his successors, and then the Romans brought to the region may have affected the movement at an even earlier stage that we once thought. Be that as it may, it was as an urban cult that Christianity spread through the empire, and the earliest substantial evidence we have of its formation as an urban cult comes from the documents associated with Paul.3
Meeks then reminds his readers that ancient cities were much different from cities as we know them today, especially in the West. Those living in developing nations have a clearer view of what cities in Paul’s era were like—crowded streets, raw sewage, poor construction, little urban planning—in other words, generally unpleasant places to live. The purpose of his book (and its revision) is to attempt to reconstruct the social dynamics of the cities in which the early church so rapidly spread.
It is interesting to point out that both Meeks and Allen wrote out of a concern for appropriately applying the methods and teachings of Paul. Allen’s concern was methodological—attempting to set the record straight, for “almost every intolerable abuse that has ever been known in the mission field has claimed some sentence or act of St. Paul as its original.”4 Meeks, on the other hand, was concerned with a hermeneutical issue. He believed the social context and functions of doctrine in ancient cities had been all but universally neglected when interpreting the letters attributed to Paul, leading to serious distortions when attempting to apply his teachings to the reader’s context.5
Rodney Stark renewed an interest in the dynamics of the city in relationship to the early church in his book Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome. Stark set out to debunk many of the many assumptions about the early church that have no supporting quantitative data.6 Stark calls for historians to count—literally! He states early in the book, “A major purpose of this book is to demonstrate that quantitative methods can help to resolve many debates about early church history.”7
Stark’s work has been well received by some and rejected by others. Those who reject the validity of his work tend to have personal stakes in their dissenting views. He argues (I think convincingly) that the growth of the early church was neither explosive nor miraculous as the usual interpretation concludes.8 He studies the thirty most populated cities of the Roman empire during the apostolic era and establishes several statistically supported hypotheses, such as the impact of a city’s distance from Jerusalem upon its size (the closer to Jerusalem, the larger the community), the influence of Hellenism, and the nature of travel (inland versus port cities; port cities having larger numbers of Christians). Basically he attempts to demonstrate that the expansion of the early church can be explained based on criteria present in the ancient world. This is not to discount in any way the work of the Holy Spirit in the early church, but to convince the reader that the power of conversion was the everyday life of the “normal” believer. It was the living out of loving one’s neighbor as oneself, doing to others what one would have them do to oneself, and helping the poor as if they were Jesus that made the difference.9
The most exhaustive work to date concerning the development of the early church is James D. G. Dunn’s Beginning From Jerusalem, volume two of his Christianity in the Making series.10 This volume is limited to the church as recorded in the New Testament writings (30 to 70 CE). Volume three, to be entitled A Contested Identity (hopefully to be published in 2013), will deal with the continual development of the church from 70 to 120 CE. Even if one disagrees with some of Dunn’s conclusions, the exhaustive references (the bibliography in volume two alone is 62 pages long!) make his works indispensable in the library of anyone interested in the early church as revealed in the biblical text. Dunn’s primary concern is properly reading the New Testament text, but there are many nuggets provided for consideration of the relationship between the early church and the city.
Dunn’s research strongly supports several significant considerations of the first years of the Christian movement. First, Paul’s (and other NT writers’) understanding of the mission of Jesus was not different from that which Jesus embodied and taught (as many scholars have suggested).11 The central idea of the establishment of “the kingdom of God” continued to be the core purpose of the nascent Christian churches.12 Secondly, the delay of the Parousia was not the problem many have suggested it was. The death of Christian leaders and other great difficulties of life from the beginning (Acts 3) disallowed any triumphalist expectation of Jesus’ immediate return.13 If true, this impacts any study of early evangelism because it explains the impulse of the missionary expansion of the early church was not one of eschatological necessity (urgency due to the imminent return of Jesus) but rather because the good news of the kingdom of God truly added great value to everyday life.14 For Dunn, the cities did indeed have an influence on the early church’s growth simply because that is where the synagogues were located, and it was from there the “good news” emanated in its earliest developments. He contends that “most small churches in effect probably continued to shelter under the legal status of the synagogues.”15
One last point from Dunn (which directly challenges the Stone-Campbell tradition’s often reductionistic patternist hermeneutic) is the complexity and differences of the Christian movement by 70 CE. He concludes, “The somewhat uncomfortable fact is that first-generation Christianity was never the pure ideal church which subsequent generations imagined as ‘the apostolic age’ or for whose return radical reformers longed.”16 There was no single pattern of “doing church,” as most students and scholars know. Ecclesiology was not the primary focus, according to Dunn. It was christology. The implications of this in an appropriate understanding of the early church cannot be overstated.17
It is here that I arrive at my purpose for writing this article. As a church historian, I am painfully and acutely aware of the continual misuse of biblical history to validate contemporary ideas and initiatives. This is particularly true with the early church and what it might teach us concerning the expansion of the kingdom of God. Many misguided efforts toward church growth and missions have been based on some aspect or idea generated from perceived practices of the early church. My hope is to help move us toward a more profitable way of reading Scripture (in particular as it relates to the early expansion of the church)—to the glory of God and for the sake of today’s church in today’s world.
Therefore I will identify my thesis here and spend the rest of this study attempting to demonstrate its validity. The actions and teachings of the early church reveal how Christians lived out and embraced “the kingdom of God” as a way of life in their particular cultural settings. The whole idea of “strategy” is a post-Enlightenment idea—especially as it pertains to an endeavor generated by the Holy Spirit to the glory of God through the work of Jesus Christ. That is not to say that careful planning, preparation, and study do not have a place in the work of today’s church—they most certainly do. But searching for a “silver bullet” that will allow the church to return to the miraculous growth pattern of its early years risks, ironically, defeating or at least greatly impeding the very work of the Holy Spirit we seek to understand and ultimately put into action.
I recently reviewed an extensive research project (which I will not identify for obvious reasons) based on finding the key to the expansive growth of the early church. I was asked to evaluate the work as an “early church historian.” The entire study was based on the assumption that the early church exploded from Jerusalem as the expression of a well thought out strategy of the Holy Spirit enacted by Peter, Paul, and other followers of Jesus (beginning with Acts 2 and continuing to explore the exponential growth reflected in Acts). The study was based on the proposal that there were miraculous conversions of large groups of people that led to the phenomenal expansion of the early church.18 It concluded with a riveting and complex strategy based on an intricate system of networking (confirmed by recent sociological studies) established through carefully negotiated relationships between leading churches in various major cities. The author is convinced this was the key to evangelistic success and thus is attempting to establish similar dynamics through cooperating churches in major cities in today’s world. His study is not without merit of consideration. My reply to that author will be reflected in the remainder of this article.
Are We Missing the Obvious?
It is of particular importance that those of us participating in the Restoration Movement model a proper understanding of the appropriate use of the study of the early church. There is currently a growing desire, especially among evangelical churches, to reconsider their governance in light of what the Scriptures teach. Those of us who have advocated a return to the principles of Scripture for guidance in such matters concerning the purposes, teachings, and functions of the church have a wonderful opportunity to lead the way in this pursuit.
What might we gain from an accurate understanding of “the city” and its relationship to the early Christian church as reflected in Scripture and other documents of the early church? To this day, whether discussing strategy, theology, missiology, or hermeneutics, much of what we debate appropriately originates from Paul’s actions recorded in Acts or writings attributed to him. We immediately note that Paul’s teaching methodology differs considerably from that of Jesus. Paul rarely quotes Jesus and in fact uses remarkably different language and style. Yet, as Dunn and others have convincingly shown, Paul teaches the same gospel. If Paul, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is contextualizing the message of the good news of the kingdom of God for the cities of his day, it would be helpful for us to understand the similar dynamics of life in our cities. This is where studies like those of Meeks and Stark are extremely helpful to our understanding of appropriately contextualizing the gospel.
Meeks attempts to use social description or social history to better understand Paul’s writings. Might more information concerning the ancient cities inform us of Paul’s concerns so that that we might better apply them to our cities? If the gospel originates in the teaching of Jesus and not Paul, how does Paul convey Jesus’ message to his hearers? If we understand Paul as the urban interpreter of the gospel of Jesus in the context of the Hellenistic, Romanized cities of his day, might this help us be better interpreters of the gospel of Jesus in the Modern (Postmodern?), Western cities of our day? Or, if you are working in a non-Western, developing nation—does the nature of your context modify the way you read and understand Paul?
Stark raises other interesting possibilities. As he attempts to reconstruct the cities to which the Christian message spread, he looks for elements in those cultures that might be of particular propensity to embrace the good news of Jesus. Missiologists often use the phrase “redemptive analogy” in the context of cultural studies. Too often this has more to do with particular practices rather than basic understandings of reality. Stark is convinced the monotheism of the Christian faith made it particularly attractive to the cities where Paul preached because of currents in those cultures. Might there be similar elements in our cities that will lead non-believers to faith? One of the issues Stark discusses is the confusion that polytheism had created. People were ready for a better way to understand their lives in the context of a divine power. Paul’s teachings were very attractive—one God, one reason to live (to serve others), and a view of worship and praise that no longer required a “portfolio” of competing gods.19
In March of 2012, I took a group of Lipscomb University students with me to Dundee, Scotland to work with the church there. One of the ministers, Patrick Sullivan, has established great relationships with a local secular high school, where he serves as chaplain. Patrick arranged for our group to speak to the seventh graders during their religious education classes. A large majority of the students were non-believers. Most viewed Christianity with obvious negative bias. One of the reasons we were asked to speak to the young people was to convince them of the importance of continuing their education. We spoke to almost two hundred students in groups of thirty, for ninety minutes each. Using various activities, including breaking the students into groups with our students, we told the story of Jesus as the hero of our lives—giving us a reason to learn. Working on the idea that life for these young people was without hope and meaning, we explained how Jesus gives each of us the opportunity to be rescuers and redeemers (returning value to damaged lives). I was amazed at how well we were received. The students enjoyed it so much that we are taking a larger group next year so we can cover all grade levels. Borrowing from Donald Miller, we offered them “a better story.”20
This is where texts like Amy Oden’s And You Welcomed Me and Bruce Winter’s Seek the Welfare of the City set a more helpful trajectory for considering the relationship of the city and the early church.21 Along with Stark and Meeks, Oden and Winter point out the power of the early Christian’s faithful witness to the love and concerns of Jesus. While this is true in all populations, rural and urban, cities were important because that is where large gatherings of people lived—in very dense, compact quarters. As pagans fled the cities when calamities such as plagues and fires devastated cities, the Christians flowed in to help the sick and displaced.22 They carried with them a message of healing, spiritually and physically.
Here we encounter a widely espoused idea of the missional church movement: missions is not so much about strategies of evangelism as it is about meeting God where he is already at work. An excellent presentation of this is Alan Roxburgh’s Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood.23 As simple as this sounds, this may be the key to kingdom growth—living intentionally and purposefully in the ways of Jesus, the Christ. This is certainly not a negation of the importance of biblical teaching and proclamation. It is a plea to recognize that proclamation in the absence of visible life transformation, leading all believers to lives of love and concern for others, lacks purpose and power. In the words of Paul that we all know by heart:
So, my dear family, this is my appeal to you by the mercies of God: offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. Worship like this brings your mind into line with God’s. What’s more, don’t let yourselves be squeezed into the shape dictated by the present age. Instead, be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you can work out what God’s will is—what is good, acceptable, and complete (Rom 12:1,2).24
Conclusion and Challenge
I recently had a great discussion with a friend whom I deeply admire concerning this approach to missions in the city (joining God where he is already at work). While he agreed with me in principle, he also pointed out the difficulty of this kind of methodology in leading to concrete results. He mentioned a mission work with which he is familiar where the workers have spent several years “just living and doing good,” yet have no tangible, measurable results. This is a challenge. We have worked for so long trying to produce results, rather than live faithfully and let the Holy Spirit work, that “faithful witness” seems to lack content, direction, and purpose. This is where the early church can help. Apparently, this lack of direction was not a problem for them. The life they lived was of such stark contrast to the complex paganism of their day that people, one by one, experienced conversion because the Christ-way offered a better story for their lives. When authentic discipleship is on display, church happens. The good news of kingdom living is too wonderful not to share. One lives a life of authentic discipleship, which provides an opportunity for a defense of that hopeful, purposeful living (1 Pet 3:15). The experience of authentic Christian living is too dynamic to remain unorganized. Disciples gather because they need to share, experience vibrant community, and learn more about Jesus. Discipleship, or apprenticeship to Jesus in the school of life, as the focus of proclamation is a different approach than attempting to plant churches. It focuses on christology rather than ecclesiology. I realize there is much yet to be developed in such statements—another article for another time perhaps.
Yet, the challenge I offer is for us to return to the impulse of kingdom life manifest in the early church. The teachings of Paul were for the most part focused on Christian living rather than overt evangelism. Actually, it might be that intentional, authentic Christian living is overt evangelism. I would argue that most of Paul’s “theology” would be better understood as the true story upon which Christian living is based. My experience as a professor over the last few years, in bringing non-believing students to faith, has convinced me this is true. My experience in helping churches, whether mission churches or established, traditional churches, understand their missional calling in the context of the individual lives of each member bearing witness to the kingdom of God, has also given me great hope for new growth in the church.
Cities are where broken people live. That does not exclude rural settings as also being ripe for the gospel. But cities are a great starting place. The key to effective proclamation in the early church was the result of their taking seriously the words of Jesus: “As you go, make disciples.” Cities happened to be where early believers “went.” The power of teaching the ways of Jesus has not diminished. The Holy Spirit continues to lead the way in the cities and throughout the world. Will we follow the Spirit’s leading? We will proclaim through our lives that there is a better story?
Earl Lavender is executive director of the Institute for Christian Spirituality and director of missional studies at Lipscomb University. Born to missionary parents in Italy, he returned there with his wife Rebecca for six years, planting a church in northeastern Italy. They have also been involved in domestic church planting. Earl has worked in mission efforts throughout Europe, as well as Australia, India, Russia, Brazil, Ghana, and China. Earl completed his undergradu- ate and masters work at David Lipscomb College and received a PhD in Historical Theology from Saint Louis University in 1991. He has written multiple books and published articles as well as contributing encyclopedia entries in several published volumes concerning patristics or ancient history. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Allen, Roland. Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? 6th ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983.
Bousset, Wilhelm. Kyrios Christos: A History of the Belief in Christ from the Beginnings of Christianity to Irenaeus. Translated by John E. Steely. Nashville: Abingdon, 1970.
Crossan, John Dominic, and Jonathan L. Reed. In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004.
Dunn, James D. G. Beginning from Jerusalem. Vol. 2 of Christianity in the Making. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.
Meeks, Wayne A. The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul. 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.
Miller, Donald. A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: How I Learned to Live a Better Story. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009.
Oden, Amy. And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity. Nashville: Abington, 2001.
Roxburgh, Alan. Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011.
Stark, Rodney. Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome. New York: HarperOne, 2006.
Winter, Bruce. Seek the Welfare of the City: Christians as Benefactors and Citizens. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.
Wright, N. T. The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.
1 On a personal note, Roland Allen’s work directly influenced the selection of the city in which my wife and I planted a church in the late 70s in northeastern Italy. While the city itself was not large, it was a center of education and commerce for the surrounding area. I was convinced I could do as Paul did, establishing a central point of teaching from which the province could be permeated with the gospel. I can look back in my journals and see the careful thought that characterized our attempts to preach the gospel. I now understand several key components were missing.
2 Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?, 6th ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 17.
3 Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul, 2nd ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), x.
4 Allen, 5.
5 Meeks, 164.
6 Rodney Stark, Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (New York: HarperOne, 2006). These assumptions are too numerous to list here. His work addresses more than the assumptions concerning explosive qualitative growth, however. There are numerous assumptions concerning the early church based on assumptions of other authors that are widely accepted but likely inaccurate, according to Stark. For example, those who identify the expected imminent return of Jesus as an escape from this world as a major motivating factor for growth. Stark convincingly suggests otherwise (30).
7 Ibid., 22.
8 This is not to disagree with the growth numbers recorded in Acts. This was not, however, the normative pattern of church growth in subsequent years, according to Stark (64-66).
9 Stark, 30. This is not suggesting a dichotomy between proclamation and exemplary living. If one looks at the entirety of Pauline literature, Paul’s attention is clearly on appropriately living out the good news of the gospel story. This implies a focus of attention on living the Jesus/Spirit-led life as proclamation. Proclamation and teaching are necessary for kingdom life to result. Stark’s point is that the life example of believers was perhaps the most powerful influence on Christian growth. This is not just “being good.” It is living a life shaped by the entirety of biblical teaching, from creation to eschatology. My experience and research supports this.
10 James D. G. Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, vol. 2 of Christianity in the Making (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009).
11 See John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004); Wilhelm Bousset, Kyrios Christos: A History of the Belief in Christ from the Beginnings of Christianity to Irenaeus, trans. John E. Steely (Nashville: Abingdon, 1970).
13 Ibid., 1170-71.
14 While this certainly can refer to the content of Christian proclamation, it also applies to the life manifested by the early believer. It was not a message of escape from the material world (Platonism), but an involvement in the suffering of the world to the glory of God. Eschatology is not just a theological concern, it has great implications for the trajectory of the believer’s everyday life.
15 Dunn, 1173.
16 Ibid., 1174.
17 This is a subject to be further explored. It is a hermeneutical question. If one reads the biblical text for rules and patterns of church constitution rather than seeking how to be the active body of Christ in the world, then one will draw different conclusions concerning the nature and function of the church.
18 To avoid confusion, by “miraculous” the authors of this proposal intended to convey a direct work of the Holy Spirit interrupting the normal response of the listening crowd to produce “phenomenal” results. While miracles confirming the message were certainly present, according to the biblical text, it was not the activity of the Holy Spirit overcoming the minds of the listeners, but the power of the good news of the gospel, convincing hearers to “repent” and embrace the kingdom of God.
19 Stark, 31-34 in particular.
20 Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: How I Learned to Live a Better Story (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009), 236.
21 Amy Oden, And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity (Nashville: Abington, 2001); Bruce Winter, Seek the Welfare of the City: Christians as Benefactors and Citizens (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).
22 This is not unlike modern demographic shifts from rural to urban. Suburbs and rural areas surrounding our cities are often seen as places of escape from the problems of the city. Do our churches escaping the city reflect the pagan flight from difficult life?
23 Alan Roxburgh, Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011).
24 Citation taken from N. T. Wright, The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).