It’s as if Rodney Stark wrote The Rise of Christianity with me in mind. The subject matter of Christianity, and the historical and analytical presentation style are all right up my alley. Through the perspective of a sociologist, Stark dug through the first 300 years of Christianity to see what it was that caused Christianity to become so prominent.
Devout Christians might be troubled by Stark’s analysis — Stark doesn’t the credit to a sweeping movement of the Holy Spirit. He doesn’t discount the supernatural, but he offers a practical and reasoned view of how Christianity grew. He cites a number of key factors, but I am struck by three in particular: the importance of relational networks, the role of women, and the way of life that Christians led and invited others into.
Perhaps the reason those three stand out to me is because they seem so important today. While the booming megachurches get most of the attention in North America, Christianity today is primarily growing through small and rapidly multiplying churches in southern Asia, Africa, and South America. And as I’ve heard these movements described, they seem to share similar traits to those mentioned by Stark that I have highlighted above.
In the concluding chapter, Stark summarizes his thesis with the words below. I believe that what was true for Christianity then can and should be true for Christianity today. And I hope that in the future, others will be able to look back and describe Christianity in the 21st century in the same way:
Central doctrines of Christianity prompted and sustained attractive, liberating, and effective social relations and organizations. I believe that it was the religion’s particular doctrines that permitted Christianity to be among the most sweeping and successful revitalization movements in history. And it was the way these doctrines took on actual flesh, the way they directed organizational actions and individual behavior, that led to the rise of Christianity.