Julia Faire explores the historical roots of our christian faith and considers the clues that may give to where we're headed.
A handful of fishermen, a tax collector, a political revolutionary and some women – all beginning with the Carpenter Himself: Christianity, or ‘the Way’ as it was first called, did not originate with the powerful. Jesus’ coming, too, was heralded by John the Baptist who, although from a priestly family, came with a message and mission entirely unconnected to the ruling religious elite; indeed some of his blistering words were directed towards them.
Some would say the rise of Christianity was the greatest or one of greatest grassroots movements the world has ever known. It grew from the bottom up, not the top down but eventually the top embraced it.
Only a handful supported Jesus at His crucifixion. By AD350 It is estimated that there were roughly 30 million Christian believers1. if we follow the growth of Christianity along an exponential curve during this time, overall we see that growth is steady but not rapid – the result, not of official programmes, nor big corporation sponsorship but of ordinary people willing to invest their lives fully in the One they believed in and share Him with others2.
So, how did it all start? Let’s take a snapshot: In c30AD, the Carpenter, touring His native land, teaching and healing, had succeeded in rattling the religious authorities of the day to the core and is presented before the highest authority of the land at the time – the might of Rome – as well as the Jewish highest council, the Sanhedrin. He is tried, cast out, and crucified and three days later his followers declare He is risen. Word spreads amongst the rank and file and the ruling forces soon know about it.
At the start, some of the elite join but the young movement in Jerusalem is headed by an unlikely selection – three fishermen, Peter, James and John, and it isn’t long before serious persecution begins. The movement’s leaders stay in Jerusalem but most of the early converts are scattered – taking the Message with them.
These early rank and file believers take their Message to the Jews everywhere they go. Some, however, on reaching Antioch in Syria, the third city of the Empire, break rank and, in their enthusiasm, tell non-Jews about the extraordinary events surrounding the life of Jesus. A burning match is taken to sapless wood; hearts are ignited; the Antioch church is born.
Barnabas is despatched to lead this unplanned church, the majority of whose members are steeped in pagan immorality and idolatry. It must have been hard-work and Barnabas searches for Paul in Tarsus for some assistance. It was from this unexpected, surprise, first Gentile church that a further and hugely far-reaching mission was launched in cAD47– headed by Paul and Barnabas.
Paul and Barnabas travelled across the Mediterranean to Asia Minor and beyond, choosing first to speak to Jews – then Gentiles. The result was Jews (not many) and Gentiles (many) were converted; amongst the Gentiles were a few high ranking ones (including a Proconsul) – but most of their number was, again, the rank and file. Paul and Barnabas couldn’t stay long in any one place; persecution awaited them. Leaders in these early days were often appointed near the outset; some must have struggled; it was the only leadership available.
But the movement grew. Usually beginning in towns, by word of mouth it spread outward to the country districts and other towns and cities further down route. These early Christians were sometimes in trouble with authorities but on the whole the Roman machine was on the side of law and order. Then, in AD64, all changed. The first wave of official persecution broke out; then another and another and another.
It is said that Peter and Paul died on the same day. Thousands in fact died in these persecutions – including many a church leader. But still the movement grew. This was not the age of mass rallies and stage preaching. Often the movement could not rely on its leadership at all – they had been martyred or imprisoned. Very often it was the unranked Christian who spread the Message.
In AD313, Emperors Constantine and Licinius issued the Edict of Milan proclaiming state toleration for Christians. Later, in the year AD380, Emperor Theodosius I decreed that Christianity become the official religion of the Empire. The top had received the message. For the next one and a half millennia or so the church has known numerous grassroots movements – often a reaction to the control, error or stagnation of mother church and the desire to return to the simplicity and purity of early Christianity. One of the earliest of these was that of the Desert Fathers. State acceptance of Christianity was bringing new people into the churches – many of whom did not carry the commitment and passion of the persecuted of earlier years. Driven by a longing for a deeper walk with God and the return to a pure church, many hardy souls set off to the deserts of Egypt and Syria in search of their dream. Some lived alone, others in small groups; some stayed temporarily, others permanently; many were single, others were married. In turn this movement gave rise to early monasticism, again a grassroots development, beginning with Pachomius in Egypt around AD 320.
Some grassroots movements have arisen amongst believers who are discontent with the status quo. Other grassroots movements have begun by the very circumstances of people’s conversion – for example, in 1800, a Welsh girl called Mary Jones was desperate to have her own Bible. Having saved up for six years and now aged 15, she walked 26 miles alone across the rugged Welsh highlands to Bala, where she had heard she could purchase one. Her quest to get a Bible inspired the formation of the British and Foreign Bible Society (with an aim to translate and distribute Bibles around the world).
Our age is one of giant corporations and multinational agencies, powers and the superpowers. The few are generally making the decisions for the many. It’s an age, too, for the Mega Church. Yet the fastest growing church in the world today is in Iran where there are no church power structures or elite; the true church exists underground, conversion is punishable by death and yet the Message spreads. When missionaries were expelled from China during the Maoist Revolution in 1949, there were around four million Christians; today there are around 31 million at a conservative estimate3. The rank and file are the instruments for churches flourishing in both countries.
And how about in the West? Here there is a mixed picture. The established church is, by and large, shrinking. There are signs of increasing future difficulties in terms of subtle state control which threatens to hamper the hitherto independent standards and teaching of the various churches. Is there a new wind blowing? Will churches have to exist in a more underground fashion and be less of an institutional entity? Will we once again see a greater empowering of the ordinary, unranked Christian? Will leadership still be there but less apparent? Will much of the impetus for Gospel spread come from the bottom and not from traditional power structures and mega organisations? Will shakers and movers arise to a great extent from the rank and file? If yes, we are only going back to the beginning.