Alan Hirsch writes this on his blog:
OK, I want to return to our discussion on the new book. To get to the heart of the material, I have to introduce you to the question that obsessed me for about 3 years non-stop–the question that started my personal quest and culminated in the wrting of The Forgotten Ways. This question will serve as both the starting point AND the constant reference point for all the material in the book as well as this series of blogs. And here’s why it is so central: I am now utterly convinced that in the answer to this question is found some direct clues to the nature of the church as God intended it as well as some answers for the missional malaise of the church in our time and place. So here goes… …
About four years ago I attended a seminar on missional church where the speaker asked the question “How many Christians do you think there were in the year 100AD?” He then asked “how many Christians do you think there were just before Constantine came on the scene, say 310AD?” Here is the somewhat surprising answer…
100AD There are as little as 25 000 Christians
310AD There are as many as 20 000 000 Christians
He then asked the question, and it has haunted me to this day, “how did they do this?” “How did they grow from being a small movement to the most significant religious force in the Roman Empire in two centuries?” Now that’s a question to initiate a journey! And delving into this question drove me to the discovery of what I will call Apostolic Genius (the inbuilt life force and guiding mechanism of God’s people) and the living components or elements that make it up. These components I have tagged missional DNA or mDNA for short.
So let me ask you the question—how did the early Christians do it? And before you respond, here are some qualifications you must factor into your answer.
They were an illegal religion throughout this period: At best, they were tolerated; at the very worst they were very severely persecuted.
They didn’t have any church buildings as we know them: While archaeologists have discovered chapels dating from this period, they were definite exceptions to the rule and they tended to be very small converted houses.
They didn’t even have the Scriptures as we know them: They were putting the canon together during this period.
They didn’t have an institutional leadership: At times of relative calm prototypal elements of institution did appear, but from what we consider institutional these were at best pre-institutional by comparison.
They didn’t have seeker sensitive services, youth groups, worship bands, seminaries, or commentaries, etc.
They actually made it hard to join the church. By the late second century aspiring converts had to undergo a significant initiation period to prove they were worthy.
In fact they had none of the things we would ordinarily employ to solve the problems of the church, and yet they grew from twenty five thousand to (around) twenty million in two hundred years! So, how did the early church do it? In answering that question, we can perhaps find the answer to the question for the church and mission in our day and in our context. For herein lies the powerful mystery of church in its most authentic form.
But before the example of the Early Christian Movement can be dismissed as a freak of history, there is another perhaps even more astounding manifestation of that unique and explosive power inherent in all of God’s people in our own time—namely, the underground church in China. Theirs is a truly remarkable story: About the time when Mao Zedong took power and initiated the systemic purge of religion from society; the church in China which was well established and largely modeled on Western forms due to colonization, was estimated to number about two million adherents. As part of the this systematic persecution, Mao banished all foreign missionaries and ministers, nationalized all church property, killed all the senior leaders, either killed or imprisoned all second and third level leaders, banned all public meetings of Christians with the threat of death or torture, and then proceeded to perpetrate one of the cruelest persecutions of Christians on historical record.
The explicit aim of the Cultural Revolution was to obliterate Christianity (and all religion) from China. At the end of the reign of Mao and his system in the late 70’s, and the subsequent lifting of the so called ‘Bamboo Curtain’ in the early 80’s, foreign missionaries and church officials were allowed back into the country, albeit under strict supervision. They expected to find the church totally decimated and the disciples a weak and battered people. On the contrary, they discovered that Christianity had flourished beyond all imagination. The estimates then were about 60 million Christians in China, and counting! And it has grown significantly since then. David Aikman, former Beijing bureau chief for Time magazine, suggests in his book Jesus in Beijing that Christians may number as many as 80 million. If anything, in the Chinese phenomenon, we are witnessing the most significant transformational Christian movement in the history of the church. And remember, not unlike the early church these people had very few Bibles (at times they shared only one page to a house church and then swapped that page with another house group.) They had no professional clergy, no official leadership structures, no central organization, no mass meetings, and yet they grew like mad. How is this possible? How did they do it?
What I suggest now is that you might wish to try and give your answers to this question. Lets chew on it together, try and distill the elements that make for phenomenal growth. Don’t try and translate these for Western contexts as yet. Just suggest answers and some reasons as to how they did it.