Early Christians before Constantine were both highly persecuted for being too exclusive, narrow, and strange, and yet at the same time they were fast growing, especially in the urban centers. (See Alan Kreider, “The Improbable Growth of the Church” in The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, Baker Academic, 2016).
This has been called an effective “missionary encounter” with Roman society. There was both offense and attraction, confrontation and persuasion. Christianity did not adapt to culture in order to gain more adherents, but neither did it remain a small, withdrawn band. Christianity confronted and critiqued the culture, believers suffered for it, and yet the faith also convinced many people, attracting growing numbers of converts daily.
It is obvious that in western societies Christians are again seen as too exclusive and narrow, and they, too, may soon be excluded from many government, academic, and corporate careers and jobs, and be socially marginalized in various other ways. What can we learn from the early church so that we can have our own effective missionary encounter?
First, we need to avoid thinking that faithful witness will mean either fast, explosive growth (if we get the ministry formula just right) or a long-term dwindling with little fruit or impact. 1 Peter 2:11-12 gives us a good brief summary of the original missionary dynamic when it tells us, in one sentence, that some outside the church accused and persecuted them, while others saw their good deeds and glorified God.
Second, we must avoid either assimilation or rigidity. There are indeed those who, in order to draw thousands, play down the more offensive and demanding aspects of Christianity. There are also those who insist that any effort at all to adjust our evangelistic presentations to particular cultural mistakes and aspirations is wrong. Yet Gregory of Nyssa, in the prologue to his Great Catechism insisted that you couldn’t win a polytheist and a Jew by the same arguments. You must frame your exposition of the gospel differently in each case. So must we.
So what might our missionary encounter consist of? It might contain:
1. A public apologetic, both popular and “high.” The early church developed effective public apologetics (e.g. Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origen, the author of the Epistle to Diognetus, and Augustine). We must not present a purely rational apologetic, but also a cultural one. Augustine developed a “High Theory” critique of pagan culture. He defended the exclusive-looking beliefs of Christians like this. “Our beliefs and lives do not in any way weaken the social fabric — rather they strengthen them. Indeed, you will never have the society you want if you maintain your polytheism.”
But besides a high level critical theory, there must also be popular apologetics. We need to show how the main promises secular culture makes regarding meaning, satisfaction, freedom, and identity can’t be fulfilled. We need an explosion of memoir apologetics — thoughtful, accessible, and wildly diverse stories of people who found Christ and had their lives changed by the gospel. We also need a host of accessible books putting forth the deep logic of Christian sexuality. Finally, public apologetics in a post-Christian society will have to include public repentance for the failures of the church in the past and present.
2. A counter-culture. Like the early church, we should be an alternate society with several characteristics:
(a) We should be marked by a striking multi-ethnicity. Christianity is far and away the most ethnically and culturally diverse religion in the world. This is an enormous credibility factor for Christianity. Yet the western church often does not look multi-ethnic to its culture. The public spokespersons for the church should be from as many different racial groups as possible.
(b) We should be pioneers in civility, in building bridges to those who oppose us. The earliest Christians were viciously persecuted and put to death, but the church practiced forgiveness and non-retaliation. Nowhere in the west are Christians facing this, yet many respond to even verbal criticism with like-toned disdain and attacks. Instead, Christians should be peacemakers, rather than pouring scorn on our critics and “sitting in the seat of the mockers” (Ps. 1).
(c) Like the early church, today’s church should be famous for its generosity, care for the poor, and commitment to justice in society. It should be well known as the main institution working to organize poor and marginal communities to advocate for their own interests with government and business.
(d) Like the early church, we should be committed to the sanctity of life, and to being a sexual counter-culture. The church today must not merely maintain the traditional sex ethic among its own people, but it must learn to critique the false cultural narratives underlying our society’s practice and view of sex.
3. Faithful presence within the vocations. Today’s church must equip Christians with the doctrine of vocation to integrate their faith with their work. This “faithful presence” within the vocational fields by Christians would lead, among other things, to a reformation of capitalism (restoring trust to the financial markets through self-regulation), to a reformation of politics (restoring not just centrism but bipartisanship), and to a reformation of the academy, the media, the arts, and technology. For help in understanding “faithful presence” see James D. Hunter’s To Change the World and the many books on integrating faith and work.
4. An evangelistic stance and approach. There is no evangelistic presentation that fits every culture. Every culture requires the basics of sin and salvation to be communicated in different ways. The gospel relates to other religions and world views as “subversive fulfillment” — the Gospel fulfills culture’s deepest aspirations, but only by contradicting the distorted and idolatrous means the world adopts to satisfy them.
Today’s church must discover various ways to present the gospel to our culture and its various sub-groupings, not merely through preaching but through every Christian learning to be public about his or her faith in their walks of life. For help in understanding how the early church did evangelism see Michael Green’s Evangelism in the Early Church and Evangelism Through the Local Church to consider what is possible today.
5. Christian formation in a digital age. The early church formed people into vibrant Christians in the midst of a pagan culture. Its members had sharply different priorities concerning money and sex and in many other regards. Alan Kreider points out that early Christians achieved this distinctiveness through up to three years of catechetical training, through the strength of their community and relationships, and through rich worship.
The church in our day faces the same challenge. In the midst of a secular culture, with its narratives (e.g. “you have to be true to yourself;” “you have to do what makes you happy;” “no one has the right to tell anyone else how to live”) — how do we form Christians who are shaped more by the biblical story and narrative? But we also face something different, namely communication technology. In a digital era a person can take in thousands of words and hundreds of ideas every day that can undermine the power of what happens in face-to-face interaction. In this situation, how do we form people who are distinctly Christian?
This will entail, at least: (a) new tools of catechesis that are formed to present all the basics of Christian truth as a direct contrast to the narratives of late modern culture (e.g. “You have heard it said — but I say unto you.”) (b) worship that combines ancient patterns of liturgy with cultural forms, (c) great use of the arts to tell the Christian story in stories, (d) theological training of both ministers and lay leaders to conduct these kinds of formative practices. For information in Christian formation see: J. K. A. Smith’s You Are What You Love and his cultural liturgies series.