In the previous post in this series through Alan Kreider’s The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom, we talked about the enormous growth rates of the early Christian movement, seemingly against insurmountable odds. In spite of ridicule and persecution, many people joined the church. Why?
Well, for starters, it wasn’t for many of the reasons we might think. There doesn’t seem to have been much of a public witness. Christians were “silent in the open,” and you probably would’ve been too if it meant keeping your life! If they advocated their faith in public, they could get the whole community into trouble. They didn’t even have explicit campaigns or programs of “evangelization.” Neither did they have particularly attractive worship. In fact, in much of the second and third centuries, non-believers were barred from the Christian gatherings! Of course worship had an impact on evangelism (as we use the word), but indirectly so; it shaped the lives of Jesus-followers such that they would be attractive and question posing (their everyday lives, not their church gatherings. Worship gatherings were designed to enable Christians to worship God, not to attract non-Christians. [As a side note, let’s be sure to acknowledge that this doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t continue to seek seekers; different times sometimes call for different tactics.]
So what about the early Christians was so attractive? There was something new and strange about them; they seemed to open up new possibilities for human existence. But in what specific ways?
For some, it was their beliefs. This was what initially caught Justin’s attention. He and other apologists “assisted in the expansion of the new faith by providing necessary confirmation of its theoretical resilience,” which is just a fancy way of saying they convinced people Christianity was true. In particular, their belief that because of Christ’s victory over death Christians need not fear death contributed largely to their success in spite of persecution.
For others, it was the sense of divine power present among the Christians. They were “in touch with the miraculous,” as Tertullian put it. This would include both healings and exorcisms, the latter being an especially important part of conversion in many (if not most) cases. “Many people felt themselves to be oppressed by predatory spiritual forces from which they longed for liberation.”
Improved way of life was certainly also a factor. Christian apologists made much of the claim that conversion turned one “into a better person” (Tertullian again). “Improved behavior” sounds to stuffy to some of us, but this was different. Here’s another early quote, “Beauty of life encourages . . . strangers to join the ranks. . . . We do not preach great things, but we live them.” On the other hand, some were put off by the fact that “the most illiterate and bucolic yokels” – that is, Christians of lesser classes – claimed that “they alone . . . know the right way to live.”
In later chapters we will look into how this transformed behavior came about, but here Kreider notes that it had to do with (a) careful prebaptismal catechizing and (b) their self-identity as “resident aliens” whose social reality differed from the wider Roman Empire. As far as the substance of their different way of life, Kreider mentions a few central examples: providing hospitality to strangers, empowering the weak (such as women), and economic sharing / caring for the poor. Yup, that’s pretty attractive to most.