Book Review

The Church's Great Asset


The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries by Rodney Stark. Harper, San Francisco, 1997, 246 pp. ISBN 0-06-067701-5. Paperback, $14.95 at Amazon.com.

Reviewed by Wayne Martindale

Rodney Stark's The Rise of Christianity has both positive elements as well as underlying presuppositions that may put off a Christian reader. Positively, he provides a fuller understanding of the early church and the ancient world, reinforces evangelistic strategies (largely already known to missiologists), and acknowledges the superiority of the Christian doctrines of love, marriage and caring for the weak.

On the negative side, however, is his social science perspective on the growth of Christianity. Perhaps more than any other science, sociology has been rationalistic, atheistic and hostile towards Christianity. While Stark's volume goes a long way towards moderating this unhappy tradition, it still has many of the drawbacks of approaching the essentially spiritual from the merely rational. Christian readers will wince at the application of growth models developed from observations of the Moonies and Mormons. They will cringe at terms like "cult" applied to Christianity and models and language drawn from economic theory. Readers may not be likely to accept Stark's "cost benefit" understanding of martyrdom and church membership, nor may they warm to the rationalist assumptions and explanations or the elevation of Paul over Jesus as the central figure in church growth. There is little new for mission strategists, and many may not want to use their time in reading this book. Then again, for readers mature in their faith, there may be worthwhile gains.

The first gain may be a fuller understanding of the early church and the ancient world as Stark gathers a host of information in making his case. His analysis of paganism and its weakness as an organizing, motivating and ethical system is quite good as is his presentation of challenges in the ancient world that Christianity was prepared to meet that paganism could not. Whereas paganism fostered a privileged class, pursuit of individual gain and personal pleasure, and maintained a pronounced bias against women, Christianity fostered community, care for the hurting, hope for the future and dignity for women and families.

Stark develops two especially compelling examples of the superiority of the Christian worldview that help to account for its widespread embrace by the ancient world. First, there were two devastating plagues. The first of these began in AD 165, lasted fifteen years and destroyed a fourth to a third of the Roman Empire's population. The second epidemic hit a century later and, at its height, killed 5,000 per day just in Rome. Not only did the general decrease in population increase the ratio of Christians, but the pagans died in considerably greater numbers because they fled the sick to avoid infection, even in their own families, whereas Christians remained and nursed the sick. With even such simple care as food and water supplied to those too weak to get it for themselves, many survived who would have died. The result was a dramatic increase in the ratio of believers in the Roman Empire. Beyond that, Christians extended care to their pagan neighbors who added to the number of Christians as people converted in response to the logic of love in action.

The second example of Christianity powerfully transforming culture comes from its valuing of women, marriage, and the family. In pagan culture, female babies were routinely eliminated by abortion or infanticide. Men had power in their families to order a wife or daughter's abortion for reasons ranging from economic to hiding sexual indiscretions. Abortion methods were crude and further decimated the female population. State law permitted the elimination of handicapped or female children by virtually any means, the most common being exposure, which meant death by starvation or from wild animals. The result was that males outnumbered females in large numbers throughout the empire. By the year 200, Rome had around 130 males for every 100 females, and even large families seldom had more than one daughter. It is easy to see how the number of Christians grew proportionately in a subculture that elevated women and embraced a culture of life. Among Christians, there was a naturally occurring greater number of females than males. This not only meant more births but marriages outside the Christian community in which children were raised almost exclusively as Christians by their mothers, with many pagan husbands converting. This chapter is worth reading for its contrast of humanism gone amuck with the healthy and life-giving consequence of Christian belief.

There is another set of reasons Christians might want to read this book: that is, for the re-enforcement of evangelistic strategies largely already known to missiologists. First, Stark's early chapters, analyzing the arithmetic of growth, show that from a small beginning a sustained growth of 40 percent per decade will in 300 years produce a population of over 30 million believers. Based on a population of 60 million, in 300 years, Christians went from .0017 percent of the total to nearly 57 percent. The explosion of growth comes in the last 50 years, where the numbers shoot up from six million to 33 million. This rate of growth, with the mushroom effect at the end, is common in successful religious movements of all stripes. This suggests that, under normal circumstances, all mission efforts will seem disappointing in the first several generations, but will, if sustained, eventually reach a point of explosive growth in simple arithmetic progression.

A second implication for mission strategy is that the early church expanded primarily through networks of family, friends and acquaintances who were directly touched by the lives of Christians. We use such terms as friendship and lifestyle evangelism to describe this kind of deliberate strategy for reaching the lost. Stark further suggests that Christianity grew first among the educated and socially well connected. He cites the large number of educated and socially privileged people in Paul's letters and in the early church. Further, the movement spread chiefly among urban populations. Stark's logic is that large populations provide a critical mass of likely "social deviants" who are willing to buck the system. While this model has explanatory power for the early church and religious growth generally, it makes the situation in China an anomaly where Christianity has spread most dramatically, initially, in the countryside. While the numbers need to be checked, it seems to me that the Chinese church has grown faster than Stark's model allows as the norm.

In a short concluding chapter on virtue, Stark acknowledges that there really is superiority in the Christian doctrines of love, marriage and care for the weak that embraces sacrifice not only for family and church, but for neighbor and even enemy. This, of course, is the church's great assetand the missiologist's winning strategy. What Stark seems unwilling to concede is the supernatural source of world-changing love. Virtue is not arbitrary: it flows from the character of God. In the final analysis, mere religious growth, however impressive the numbers, is not the final indicator of truth or value.

The most encouraging aspect of this book is the stunning number of parallels between the pagan Greco-Roman world, which saw the rise of Christianity to the dominant world view, and the cultural conditions of modern China. In the ancient world, Christianity rose to dominance because it met the challenges and opportunities posed by urbanization, corruption in government, brutal and inhumane public policy from persecution to forced abortion, male-female population imbalance, the ravages of epidemics and the squalor of the poor. Stark's point is that Christianity grew in such conditions precisely because it had the belief system and ethics to address the needs and hurts of the people. Despite its rationalist outlook, there is every indication from Stark's account that history is poised to repeat itself in China.

Image credit: Gaylan Yeung.

Wayne Martindale

Dr. Wayne Martindale, professor of English at Wheaton College, has taught in China with his wife, Nita, five times since 1989. He is co-editor of The Quotable Lewis and author of Beyond the Shadowlands: C. S. Lewis on Heaven and Hell. View Full Bio