Let me raise a question about Christian missions. How robust is the growth of Christianity today? Better yet, how did Christianity grow in the first century; and how does our present growth compare with early church expansion?
I don’t have specific data but allow me to generalize from what I see, hear, and read in today’s missional world. Early church growth was explosive while present day growth is modest. Today’s growth ranges from moderate in parts of Africa, South America, and Asia, to dismal in Europe and America—including retractions in some settings.
Evidence of the early growth of the church was both internal and external. An external witness came in the year 111 when a regional governor, Pliny, wrote to Emperor Trajan from his post in Bithynia (now part of Turkey) about the “contagion” of Christianity:
“For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found.”
This report of “deserted” pagan temples corresponds to the report in Acts 19:26 where an unhappy pagan, Demetrius, charged that “not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia [present-day Turkey] this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people [from idols].”
What these accounts depict is that for fifty years—from the mid-40’s to the late-90’s—the church experienced dramatic growth in Roman regions as illustrated in the book of Acts. And the momentum of that growth continued even into the early 4th century as the Roman Emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity and made it the state religion.
Yet at some point, as Pliny noted in his report, that expansion slowed. Jesus himself offered a comment on the change—particularly in Ephesus, a mother church in the Asian/Turkish region—when he appeared to the Apostle John about 15 years prior to Pliny’s report: “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Revelation 2:4).
Lost their first love? Is love really so important in spreading Christianity?
Yes! We think of Paul’s reference to his own love—“For the love of Christ controls us” (2 Corinthians 5:14)—as a basis for his own devotion to missions. And we see how an earlier absence of love in Judaism caused their theologians to miss Jesus as the Messiah: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me . . . . But I know that you do not have the love of God within you” (John 5:39-42).
Simply put, love is the basis both for launching and spreading faith. Paul said as much to the Galatians when he called them to a “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6—see, too, 1 Corinthians 13).
Now back to our earlier question about the difference between the early growth of the church and the widespread inertia of today. Jonathan Mangels caught my attention as a teacher with his master’s thesis on the motivation for missions. He addressed the current motivation for Christian missions: duty.
He showed how the “great commission” of Matthew 28:19 is regularly treated in the literature and rhetoric of missions as separate and different from the “great commandment”—to love God and neighbor—of Matthew 22:37-40. That 6-chapter separation—from Matthew 22 to 28—too readily removes missions from its motivation of love. And in its place we find the commission turned into a duty: “Go!”
Whenever love, as a response to Christ’s prior love for us, is replaced by a responsibility to extend the truths of Christianity we run the risk of becoming coldly professional: the error of the Ephesian church. A heart-to-heart growth, as enflamed hearts draw hungry hearts to Christ, is too readily dissolved into educational efforts, accountability checks, organizational charts, and literature or media distribution campaigns.
These instruments may be fine as long as they aren’t replacements for the “first love” that once carried the church in its dramatic growth. Some of us in missions—a role for all Christians—may even want to invite the Spirit to give us a heart-inspection. It’s free and very effective in changing motives!