Have you ever wondered why hundreds and thousands joined the early communities when it would cost them everything? Great grace, power, and fear were upon the ekklesia (church). We’re not too crazy about #3 these days – it’s not church-growth, seeker friendly. “None dared to join them,” doesn’t fit our “church growth strategies.” Yet even with great fear, people joined themselves. Why?
What would motivate folks to join themselves to a powerless (in human societal terms), money-less, status-less sect when it could perhaps cost them their families, their “careers,” their social standing, and perhaps their lives? What drew them? I will tell you what didn’t draw them: the motivational sermons, the hot worship team, the light show, the latte bar in the foyer, and the dynamic youth and children’s ministry. It wasn’t just “the miracles” either. This may be shocking for some and contrary to what some “schools of the supernatural” would have us believe that all that is needed for “revival” is for everyone to be doing miracles. The supernatural was part, but not the only, and not the primary reason pagans joined theekklesia. Jesus’ miracles were exceptional in scope, (no man has done these things, etc.). However, the reality of of the supernatural in objective manifestation was not exceptional in their world view.
Because of hundreds of years of rationalism in our culture, the supernatural is considered exceptional for us. It was not so for them. They did not have the same skeptical rationalism to work through as we do. They were culturally accustomed to signs and wonders. With the benefit of 2,000 years of “Christian” hindsight and theology, we might consider some of them as “false signs.” They may be just that, false/misleading, but they were objectively real.
Wonders and wonder-workers were common place in ancient times. The Romans kept vials of the spit of the emperors in their temples because it was believed by all ancient people that the spit of specially anointed people (prophets, priests, or kings) had curative powers. Some people who came to these pagan temples were actually healed. Sorry to ruin your worldview if you think only Jesus has this kind of power. (This also explains the story of Jesus spitting in the mud–gives it cultural and contextual understanding. Everyone in the crowd understood what He was doing. We read that story and just think it is strange).
Years ago I asked myself the “Why would they join?” question. I was not too happy with my own answers. In fact, I was devastated by my own answers.
In our culture there is a saying: “believing your own press clippings.” That is, believing our own commentary about ourselves.
For example, in the real world, a waiter doesn’t get to determine the amount of the tip or evaluate his or her own level of service. The ones he or she serves gets to determine the value of the service. On the job, do you get to determine your worth, salary, raise, or promotion, or does your boss, the one you are serving get to determine that? In school do you get to grade your self on your performance, or is there an objective measurement administered by someone else? Why does this make sense in the real world, but it is frequently absent in Church-world?
In “Church-world,” we react to objective evaluation from outsiders as “negativity, criticism, bitterness, etc.,” and continue doing what we have always done . . . because we like what we are doing, and have no intention of changing. In Church-world we continually convince our selves of how great we are and how wonderful we are doing, when objective measures say the opposite.  God’s opinion, and our neighbor’s opinion is what counts, not our press clippings. They are the two we are supposedly “serving.”
I have been a Christian for 40 years and I don’t know a single church or faith community that takes this admonition seriously: “Anyone who desires to be an elder, must have a good testimony from those who are without.” When is the last time you were part of an assembly that just didn’t give passive, theoretical, lip-service to that verse, but actually interviewed unbelieving neighbors, co-workers, bosses, etc., regarding their opinions about an “elder” candidate for your church or assembly? I have never seen it. Not once. If you have, I am glad for you and you are ahead of the curve! We can excel at self-delusion regarding our alleged “obedience.” That’s why our own press clippings are unreliable.
The Pagan Conversion to Christianity
I began to wonder, not about what the church’s own point of view about itself through the years was, but what did the unbelieving pagans think about the church? What were the qualities in the ekklesia that “spoke to” unbelievers, and motivated them to join themselves to the ekklesia? In other words, I did not want to know what Christian historians wrote about themselves, but what the pagans said. I wanted to know the opinions of the ones supposedly being served, not the ones doing the service. So, I went looking for pagan commentary on the church–not their negativity per se, but what they saw in the ekkelsia that set it apart, and attracted people to it.
Without exaggeration, this expedition into history resulted in one of the biggest uncomfortable watershed moments of my life. I borrowed from some other authors and compiled a list of the top 7-8 things that the pagans spoke favorably of in the ekklesia. Do you know what was so painful? Nothing I had been doing, was doing, or spending time and money on “in ministry” made the top 7-8. Yikes–Houston, we have a problem!
It was a shocking, devastating, breaking, “come to Jesus” moment in my life, to realize that the better part of 35 years of effort was sincere, but sincerely misdirected: redeemed and used by a great and gracious God for what it was, offered to Him in sincerity (Anything offered to Him in faith is “usable.” He will use whatever beachhead He has in His people.) but not necessarily endorsed by the same God. Well, a late course correction is better than no course correction.
When we say we want a “new testament” church with “new testament results,” or an “apostolic church,” or “first century” church, it would behoove us to understand what we are asking for, and to take a look at what they had versus what we offer–not confusing what we might enjoy in our Christian freedom and liberty, as essentials for Christian life and ministry. We have liberty in method, but not liberty in values. Kingdom values are eternal, trans-generational, and trans-cultural. Methods are not. When our methods become our values, or when our methods define our substance, we are in big trouble.
Doing this honest self-assessment was part of a process that reconfigured my life fifteen years ago. It was a humbling experience to realize that much of what I had given myself to had sketchy biblical legitimacy, and very little I had been involved in mattered to the people who actually needed the gospel the most.
_____________________________ E.g.: Statistically we are not even effective reaching our own children with the gospel. Over 75% (Some surveys put it closer to 85-90%. I am quoting the most “favorable” stats.) of the children of first generation believers will not serve the Lord after they leave the home. Hardly facts to brag about. Sounds like a reason to weep to me, not have fluffy, “Gee, we are great services,” week after week. Dr. James Dobson went public some time ago admitting and confessing that as a generation, his generation of leaders had “failed” in their gospel ministry because of a lack of penetration into the culture in any societally meaningful way. They didn’t reach the people who needed the gospel, but preached to the proverbial choir, week after week. I agree with him. Dr. D. James Kennedy, before he passed went on television and said that in his opinion that 75% of the people attending evangelical services in a given week, are not converted. I agree also with him. Are these “bitter, wounded, and negative” ministers or are they candidly telling the truth in a moment of honest self-reflection? I respect them because it is refreshingly the latter. Perhaps we all should follow their example.
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Is there a resource that describes the 7-8 things you mention that drew pagans to the early church ?
I found this as I was wondering the same thing: