I’ve been re-reading Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity:
It’s fascinating and refreshing. I found it slightly worrying that most of his references are to his own, or his associates,’ academic work, but then as a Christian among sociologists, as I understand it, his is a lonely furrow to plough.
His main conclusion is that the central doctrines of Christianity prompted and sustained atttractive, liberating and effective social relations and organizations (p211). Among other examples he suggests:
Christians did plagues better, by being will to nurse and die rather than run away.
Christians did family life better by being better for women in that era and much better for unborn and just-born women, who sometimes blocked Roman drains by being dumped in them. Incidentally, Christians did fertility better in an age when the populations of cities or indeed Roman Empires was not self-sustaining.
Christians did urban life better by offering sustaining networks that built new structures of belonging across a chaotic jumble of tribes and tongues
Christians did mercy better by teaching of a God of mercy who required mercy
In addition, Stark argues that (as with all minority cults which Christianity was at the time), Christianity disproportionately attracted the 1st-century equivalent of college graduates with no particular belief in anything. Once attracted, these people had the talent and the resource to become the kind of able people who were able to sustain and grow a popular movement.
With these and other advantages, the Christian faith then grew at 40% per decade, on his numbers, for three hundred years. Constantine’s conversion, at the end of the period, was more of a bowing to the politically inevitable than a surprising gleam in the dark.
My friend and colleague Jason Mandryk wrote recently about how prayer and church growth are often not instant, even though we wish they were, but more like a canyon being carved over generations by a river just being being a river.
I wonder if in other places where a vigorous Christian faith has taken root and grown (South America, China) it has grown for similar reasons?
In any event, Rodney Stark’s analysis is right, Christianity’s prospects in a confusing, multi-ethnic, in places deeply cruel world, with a large number of people unmoored from any religious attachments — the rise of the religious ‘nones’ which is often given as a sign of decline of Christianity — are actually rather promising.