The Expansion of Christianity and Today’s Church

 (This is a paper I wrote for Dr. Carl Volz at Luther Seminary in 1998.  Dr. Volz was unimpressed -- as an historian he felt I relied too much on low-brow contemporary sources -- but I learned a great deal from writing this.  The paper deals primarily with the question of how the church today in a largely post-Christian culture can learn from the experience of the church in the sub-apostolic era, about 100-300 AD.)

            The original concept behind this independent study was to examine the church -- specifically evangelism and the expansion of Christianity -- in the rough period between about 100 A.D. and 300 A.D.  I chose this time period to focus on Christianity before it was a religion with political power and prestige.  In recent years Loren Mead and many others have written about the end of “Christendom” and a return to some sort of “Apostolic” church.  Those who follow this point of view claim that Christendom  -- that state of affairs in which the Christian Church has some sort of status as the “official” religion of an empire -- has come to an end, and that the Christian church must make sweeping changes to cope with the end of Christendom. 
            There are many trends in America, at least, that seem to back up their thinking.  The wide gulf between church and state, the increasing diversity of our population and increasing pluralism, and politically correct sentiments that demand tolerance ... all these point to a loss of privileged status for the church.  Though concrete facts are slippery, society seems to have walked away from the church in some significant ways.  One author draws some ominous parallels:

“Like Stonehenge or the Acropolis or the great pyramids of Egypt, the Christian churches which were once so inextricably bound up in the psychological and emotional life of the West now seem to many to be quaint and out of touch with modern realities” (Gary Eberle, The Geography of Nowhere, p.103).

            Whether the church is going the way of Stonehenge or not, it seems safe to say that the church’s role as the custodian of our cultural mythos is declining.  That is to say, society no longer uses Christian terminology (sin, salvation, divine intervention, self-sacrifice, even heaven and hell) to express its thought and experience.  As the wider culture in the West makes choices that fall outside traditional Christian teaching and practice, the church is increasingly forced to choose either to accommodate its dogma to society’s preferences, or to stand directly against the tide of public opinion.  Issues like homosexuality are one example of this trend -- either churches must find ways to accept homosexuality and homosexual persons, or they must circle the wagons around their “traditional” beliefs.  In short, the church is no longer closely tied to the centers of power in our culture.  With an ongoing whimper, Christendom is waning, if it has not already ended.
            The aim of this paper, then, is to examine that time in the church’s history immediately prior to the beginnings of Christendom -- immediately before the time of Constantine.  My assumption is that there will be some parallels between that age and our own that may help us discern the needs of the world and the mission of the church for our time.  I am especially interested in the expansion of Christianity and the church’s practices regarding evangelism because “church growth” and evangelism are such hot topics today.  Those who talk most about the end of Christendom are often those who push congregations to buy into an apostolic paradigm for their church.  I dislike the catchy language of a new  “Apostolic Age.”  Though there are valuable lessons and models in the stories of the New Testament church (especially the book of Acts), our socio-cultural setting is very little like what Paul faced in his church planting. 
            For one thing, Christianity is no longer “new” in any sense of the word.  There are undoubtedly people who have not heard of Jesus, and many more who have only a vague idea about the basic beliefs of Christianity.  Still, the vast majority of people are familiar enough with the church and with Christianity to make some assumptions.  Their assumptions may be far off base, but Christianity is not new to these people.  They have had enough exposure to Christians -- via Billy Graham, a local congregation, childhood exposure, or widely publicized scandals -- to form their own opinions.  Evangelizing these people is a different task from that which Paul faced on Mars Hill.
            For another thing, we are far distant from the eyewitnesses of Jesus who carried out the first missionary preaching.  The events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection have been argued for nearly two millennia.  Today’s Christian can appeal to personal experience of faith and relationship with Jesus, but we can no longer make John’s claim to expound “what we ourselves have looked at and our hands have touched” (I John 1:1).  We are appealing to ancient history as well as personal faith experience when we make claims about Jesus.  Our audience, consciously or not, carries the residue of centuries of historical filtering, church teaching and preaching, and (more recently) the skeptical rationalism of the Enlightenment -- as well as a bit of postmodern deconstruction.
            We are not re-entering any kind of Apostolic Age.  However, we may find help by examining what Michael Green calls the “sub-apostolic” period -- the second and third centuries after Jesus.  In this time period the church was solidly entrenched in most Mediterranean cities.  Most people in the Roman world had an opinion about Christians, for good or ill.  The church struggled (notably in the Montanist controversy) between more charismatic leadership and the emerging hierarchy of bishops, presbyters, deacons, and other officials established by the church.  These and other parallels may yield new insights for us into our own church.

            An initial investigation does, in fact, reveal many parallels in the cultural landscape between the second and third century and the twentieth.  What follows are my own general conclusions, open to argument and interpretation.
            Harnack and many others have marveled at the social, cultural, and technological factors that allowed Christianity to grow so dramatically in its first three centuries.  Many of these factors have distinct parallels in our own time.            
            First, the whole Roman Empire shared a common language during this time.  The conquest of Alexander the Great had left the whole Mediterranean world speaking Greek, and this common language provided the early Christians an easy medium for communicating the gospel throughout a wide geographical area.  It is hard to imagine the tremendous difficulty for the early church if Jesus’ first disciples had been limited to a regional sub-dialect that had to be translated before the gospel could be communicated to any new culture!  Though it is likely that Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic, the early church -- and these disciples themselves -- apparently made the transition to Greek without any difficulty.  It was a language common to nearly all residents of the Roman Empire, and remained so throughout this period.
            In our own time, English has emerged as a language of trade and technology throughout the world.  Most of the world speaks English either primarily or as a second or third language.  Though it is not universal, English provides a parallel in our day to the Greek of early Christianity.  Communication is relatively easy. 
            Computers and the Internet, satellite telephones and televised broadcasts all over the world -- these instant communications have made communication easier than anyone could have imagined a hundred years ago.  They make interpersonal communication possible at very low cost literally across the world.  These technological advances in communication close the gap between people in much the same way that a common language (Greek) and ease of transportation did in the first three centuries of the church’s life.
            Transportation is a second key factor cited by Harnack and others.  Roman roads are a cliche even today.  Rome’s harsh punishment of pirates made sea travel relatively easy and safe, and a thriving commerce across the Mediterranean ensured that ships were traveling frequently to many, many ports.  In short, both land and sea travel were far easier during this period than for several centuries before or after.  The early church took full advantage of this ease of transportation and travel.  Missionary journeys, frequent letters, emissaries from one congregation to another -- all these were common in the early church.
            In the last century humanity has seen the advent of the automobile, which has done more to transform American life than almost any other agent.  As I write, my sister is en route from northwestern Minnesota to south central Pennsylvania.  She is allowing about three days to travel one-way -- in her words, “Taking it kind of slow.”  Without cars or other “modern” transport, this trip would have taken her at least two months. 
            However, if she had been in a real hurry she could have driven to Fargo, caught a plane to Minneapolis, and in the space of eight hours she could have traveled from my father’s farm near Fertile, Minnesota, to her boyfriend’s apartment in State College, Pennsylvania.  Transportation has undergone major changes in the last few decades.  Perhaps the itinerary of a preacher like Billy Graham is a modern parallel to Paul’s travels in the first century.  Reverend Graham can preach on every continent in the world, allowing ample time for preparation and follow-up for each crusade, and his only limitation is the stress traveling puts on his aging body.
            A third major parallel between the early church and our own time, at least in the United States, is our political climate.  Rome in the first three centuries A.D. was mostly a benevolent dictatorship that did not put unnecessary limits on religious practice.  Though the Christians got into occasional trouble and persecutions were sometimes fierce,  such times seem to have been the exception rather than the rule.  Riding on the coattails of the religious tolerance Rome had extended to the Jews, Christians had a great deal of freedom to gather, worship, and evangelize as they saw fit.
            Through the brief history of the United States, the “separation of church and state” has worked out in a similar fashion.  Christians are free to exercise their religion as they see fit inside a wide range of faith expression.  From snake handlers  to sacramental peyote chewers, Christians in the U.S. have enjoyed great freedoms.  Though the government occasionally betrays a mild anti-religious bias (well detailed by Stephen Carter in The Culture of Disbelief) these rarely amount to more than a financial inconvenience imposed on a sect or a peripheral issue of church practice limited by an unfavorable court decision.  While the early church existed under a benevolent (or at least tolerant) emperor, our own church labors under a benevolent (or at least tolerant) bureaucracy.
            A fourth parallel is the diversity and pluralism so apparent in the early church’s context.  The ease of travel brought many cultures into regular contact.  Diverse pantheons of gods and goddesses (all synchretized by Rome) rubbed shoulders in each city.  Missionaries in the early church took advantage of this pluralism to find creative ways to talk about Jesus.  Paul’s speech on Mars Hill, in Acts 17, is a good example of an effective use of the hearer’s context.  Paul appeals to a Greek poet, as well as the overt religious expressions of the Athenians, to introduce these people to the Good News. 
            Our own church struggles to see some good in “diversity.”  We wrestle with racial quotas in our assemblies and agonize over homogeneous northern European congregations.  The growing interaction between different races and cultures has been a problem since they days when the Swedes, the Norwegians, the Finns, and the Danes (to say nothing of the Germans!) each had their own Lutheran church in the same Minnesota farm towns.  At the close of the twentieth century, our northern European populations have learned to tolerate each other, but now we must face the fact that the Lutheran church does little to minister to blacks, Native Americans, diverse groups from Southeast Asia, and many others.  We are dealing with pluralism and diversity as a new phenomenon, while the early church accepted  them as a matter of course.  Our “tolerant” solution to the dilemma of pluralism too often means that we abandon the intensity of our own faith to avoid offending a neighbor who believes differently.  How can we maintain a passionate faith in Jesus Christ when our neighbors are Buddhists, Muslims, atheists, or Christian Scientists?  Here is one area we might learn much from the early church!
            A final, and difficult, parallel is that the church was young during a time of decaying traditions.  The Greek culture had become suspicious of its own polytheism, and many philosophers had adopted a vague monotheism that was sympathetic to the faith of the Jews of the Diaspora.  Gary Eberle recounts a story from one of Plutarch’s letters in which a boat’s pilot hears a voice shouting, “Great Pan is dead!”  This story coincided with the strange silence that overtook the oracles around the Mediterranean basin in the first century.  The traditional religions of Greek culture had lost their grip on the people (The Geography of Nowhere, p.100).
            The parallel here is a disturbing one at best.  Commenting on the lack of direction, of Christian faith, in our own postmodern time, Eberle says that

“the ancient [Christian] stories in their traditional form became inadequate to explain the postmodern realities.  That is, the idiom of traditional religion ceased to speak to the changed world in a meaningful way, and so, as happened when history outran the ancient pagan gods, the oracles of Christianity fell silent as those at Delphi did before them” (p. 103).

This line of thinking puts a dramatic terminal twist on the end of Christendom.  It sounds more like the end of Christianity.  As society perceives the church as less and less relevant to daily life, the implication is that the church has outlived its usefulness.  Loren Mead stares this possibility in the face in his trilogy of The Once and Future Church and its sequels.  Mead’s strength may be that he takes the bad news of the mainline church’s decline in our time very, very seriously.
            But are we, in fact, seeing the end of the church’s vitality?  Is it declining into dotage?  Perhaps, but I don’t think the church is beyond hope.  I believe the answer largely depends on how the church itself decides to spend its energy.  Mainline churches especially face some crucial issues that can be illuminated via the early church’s experience.  We have moved now from examining the church’s context in the second and third centuries to examining the church itself, and the issues it faces.  What are these issues within the church?
            One is institutional complacency.  Our congregations are largely well-established, middle class institutions that carry a sense of tradition into all aspects of ministry.  This sense of tradition can be a source of strength and constancy, but it can also prevent needed innovations.  As one of my former professors used to say, “We prefer comfortable problems to uncomfortable solutions!”  More than one creative attempt at ministry has died under the pronouncement, “We’ve never done it that way!”  I don’t think it is pressing the issue too far to hear some of this attitude in Hippolytus’ scathing diatribes toward variations in worship, or the compassion of Callistus! 
            A related issue is the ongoing tension in our churches between those who advocate a charismatic, Spirit-dependent leadership versus those who are concerned to provide responsible leaders, thoroughly educated, who understand the traditions and structure of the church.  This tension appears over and over again in the early church.  On one hand are those (Tertullian is a good example) who see the church as the dynamic people of God, led and held together by the Holy Spirit through charismatic leaders.  On the other hand, leaders like Callistus saw the church as the organization of those who follow Christ, led and held together by a system of bishops and presbyters.  This is a particularly poignant tension in the church today.  The charismatic renewal of the 1970’s stands in tension with the liturgical renewal movement; those elements in the Lutheran church that desire more structure and permanence in the offices of bishops and pastors stand against those who see ordained ministry as simply a necessary role for convenience in the church.  The tension between Spirit-led leadership versus structured, organized leadership in the church is an ongoing one.  Both are probably necessary to keep the church from either heretical enthusiasm or deadened bureaucracy.  Unfortunately, my study of the early church has thus far at least unearthed no good solution to the either / or nature of this tension.  The Montanist controversy, from 172 or so onward, is the most notable expression of the tension.  While the Montanists claimed the Spirit’s voice as their supreme authority, even surpassing the scriptures (which, in their defense, were not finally canonized yet), the wider church rejected their claims and branded them, in the end, heretical.  However, as great a personality as Tertullian could join the Montanist movement as a legitimate alternative to clerical infighting in Rome and Carthage.  Indeed, Callistus’ advocacy of a church identified by the company of bishops, as opposed to Tertullian’s assertion that the church is the spiritual collection of spiritual individuals, is one prime example in the early church of the tension between structure and spirit that has waged back and forth throughout the church’s life. 
            What does this tension say to us today?  Personally, I lean away from structure and toward spirit.  I believe that the Lutheran church, at least, and probably all the mainline denominations, must rediscover passionate faith that draws the whole life of the believer into relationship with God.  Such faith is rarely caught from a structure-oriented church.  It is caught from charismatic individuals who live out this faith and share it through their whole lives.
            This need for passionate faith has become the central focus of my reading about evangelism in the early church.  I would like to examine one more parallel between the early church and our own -- that of the boundary between the church and the world -- and and its relationship to our need for passionate faith.
            Near the beginning of The Once and Future Church, Loren Mead provides three diagrams of the church in its relationship to the surrounding culture.  The first is the Apostolic Church, which Mead describes as “a faithful people surrounded by a hostile environment to which each member was called to witness to God’s love in Jesus Christ” (Mead, p. 10).  The three words he uses to describe the socio-political environment surrounding the Apostolic Church are “hostile, antagonistic, persecuting.”  The second model Mead presents is the church of Christendom, the local parish in which the congregation is identical with the community.  The third diagram he presents is our own church.  He describes our environment with the words, “Some Hostility, Some Indifference, Some Supportiveness” (Mead, p. 26).  This ambiguous environment requires members of today’s congregation to take on the old apostolic act of mission -- that is, walking out the front doors of the church.  The world around the church is the “new” mission frontier.
            It strikes me that Mead’s model of the Apostolic Church may have been true during times of persecution, or in certain antagonistic communities where Christians lived only at the fringes of acceptance.  But in most communities, from what I’ve read, there was much ambiguity regarding Christians and their faith.  Their communities were held in high regard for the purity of their love and the care they extended to the poor.  Individual morality among Christians drew some admirers, and the dramatic nobility of martyrs drew many.  On the other side of things, these Christians worshipped a crucified criminal.  Their religion was largely a phenomenon of the lower classes, who had least to lose by joining these communities of Christians.  And of course, they were “atheists,” denying the Greek gods and the deity of the emperor.  So there was much ambiguity even in the world surrounding the early church. 
            In this ambiguity I see one of the most significant parallels between our church and the early Christians.  Our society is ambivalent about Christians and their faith.  One intelligent, compassionate young woman told me quite honestly that she thought the church was “a hiding place for weak people.”  Scandals involving televangelists, parish priests and pastors, and other notable Christians have provided ample fodder for negative public opinion regarding the church.  Yet effective programs which help the poor and needy, real examples of everyday compassion, and heroic individuals like Mother Theresa and others keep the public from laughing the church off entirely.  Maybe, just maybe, there is something to all this!
            Given this ambiguity, both in their day and in ours, how must the church function?  Michael Green points out a crucial distinction between that time and our own:

“ contrast to the present day, when Christianity is highly intellectualized and dispensed by a professional clergy to a constituency increasingly confined to the middle class, in the early days the faith was spontaneously spread by informal evangelists, and had its greatest appeal among the working classes ... It was axiomatic that every Christian was called to be a witness to Christ, not only by life but by lip.  Everyone was to be an apologist, at least to the extent of being ready to give a good account of the hope that was in them” (Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, p. 175).

            What did they do that prompted such growth that in two hundred years Christianity could go from an obscure offshoot of the Jewish religion to the official religion of the Roman empire?  They lived and spoke the faith that had captured them. 

“It was an unselfconscious effort.  They were scattered from their base in Jerusalem and they went everywhere spreading the good news which had brought joy, release and a new life to themselves.  This must often not have been formal preaching, but the informal chattering to friends and chance acquaintances, in homes and wine shops, on walks, and around market stalls.  They went everywhere gossiping the gospel; they did it naturally, enthusiastically, and with the conviction of those who are not paid to say that sort of thing.  Consequently, they were taken seriously, and the movement spread” (Green, ibid., 173).

            It seems, if Green has captured the spirit of the early church’s evangelism, that there was little programmatic evangelism going on.  Rather, evangelism happened out of the very etymology of the word -- the practicing, the simple “ism” of the evangel, the most excellent news, which these Christians had experienced firsthand.  Joy, new life, and release were theirs.  How could they not talk about it? 
            On the other hand, evangelism does seem to have been an intentional pursuit.  Growing out of the longstanding tradition of proselytizing in Judaism, Christians were intentional about sharing their faith.  Yet this faith-sharing seems to have been more out of personal experience and passion than from any formulaic “Four Spiritual Laws” plan of salvation.  The advice to Christians in First Peter rings true here: 
“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.  But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (I Peter 3:15-16).

Buttonholing passersby on the streetcorner was not an effective means of sharing the good news.  Rather, the life of faith and the spoken word of the good news went hand in hand, and those whose curiosity was aroused by the Christian’s life could easily find the source of the Christian’s hope and joy simply by listening to Christians. 
            A crucial distinction begins to emerge between that day and our own.  Our church tends to contain a high percentage of “social Christians” -- those who come because they like church, because their friends do, because they always have, because their parents taught them to ... and relatively few authentic disciples of Jesus Christ.  I realize this is dangerous ground to tread, for who will judge the authenticity of another’s faith?  It is striking, however, that the daily interaction between Christians in the early church and their  surroundings brought so many people into the church without any overt evangelistic strategy. 
            If my hunch here is correct, most mainline evangelism programs put the cart before the horse.  They sponsor “Invite A Friend To Church” Sundays.  They focus on increasing church attendance.  They talk so much about sharing one’s faith that people feel pressured and guilty about not sharing faith. 
            The early church’s experience says that the first step in evangelism is to make authentic disciples whose lives have been changed by their relationship with Jesus Christ.  These disciples naturally become missionaries into the community, talking about Jesus in real life terms at the laundromat, the grocery store, the coffee shop, the soccer field.  They become known as those whose lives have something a little different -- a risky compassion, a freedom from despair, a contagious hope.  When asked, they are willing to talk about faith without shame and without pride, as one beggar tells another where to find bread. 
            Is this too idealistic?  Is it possible for the church today to make such disciples?  What prevents us from doing so?  Why are people with this kind of passionate faith so few in our pews?  Can we learn here from the sub-apostolic church?
            One stark contrast between the sub-apostolic church and the Lutheran church today deals with boundaries.  Loren Mead picks up on this issue when he isolates the missional act of the church as crossing the boundary from church into community.  The early church had a strong sense of boundaries -- who was in, who was out.  “The World” is a common theme in early Christian literature, probably because the early Christians were confronted every day with activities that ran contrary to faith in Jesus Christ.  Temples to other gods, temple prostitutes, meat sacrificed to idols, pagan banquets and orgies, gladiators killing each other for sport ... many elements of life in the Roman empire ran up against Christian faith.  The only possible parallel I can think of in my own experience is the first time I walked down The Strip in Las Vegas.  The obscenity of the ubiquitous gambling, the obviously professional panhandlers, the men on streetcorners handing out phone sex flyers, the hookers on each sidestreet, the motels with “Hourly Rates” signs flashing ... it was an overwhelming experience of how anti-Christian a city could be.  I suspect that the early Christians understood the boundary between The Church and The World so well because they saw it in action all the time.
            Our church today, on the other hand, doesn’t talk much about any kind of boundary.  One pastor I know was recently questioned by a friend about what distinguishes the church from the Kiwanis Club.  The pastor brought up point after point, but his friend said all these things were present among the Kiwanis.  The only element the pastor could find for which the Kiwanis had no parallel was the proclamation of forgiveness.  What distinguishes the church from the world?  Do members of our churches believe they are separate from the world?  Are we truly the “ek-klesia,” the called-out ones, or are we living in and of the world at the same time? 
            What about the entrance rites -- the way one comes into this called-out community?  While the early church made baptism a big deal, with up to three years of preparation for baptismal candidates and individual examinations as part of the rite, our most diligent pastors meet once or twice with a family before baptizing the infant -- and little accountability is provided around the baptismal vows!  Confirmation, which in the Lutheran scheme is supposed to provide some movement toward accountability and ownership of the individual’s baptismal vows, has been called a “rite without a theology.”  Parents and pastors throw up their hands when it comes to confirmation.  Many parents when I was a youth director just wanted to get their kids “done” so they didn’t have to bring the kids -- or themselves -- to church every week.  Yet imposing requirements on confirmands draws cries of outrage from parents, and pastors alike.  We are justifiably afraid of works righteousness, but we have not learned to be fearful of cheap grace.
            All of this comes back to our perception of boundaries.  In our politically correct age, it would certainly be offensive and inappropriate to spend a lot of time pointing fingers at who is “outside.”  Besides, this directly contradicts Jesus’ repeated command not to judge others.  But those who are inside -- those who have experienced the love of God in Christ Jesus -- need to understand that this is something that the world does not possess.  The boundary is not erected to keep the world out.  Rather, it is defined so that the congregation may grow into its identity as “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God” that exists to “declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (I Peter 1:9-10).  As the identity of the people of God grows, the congregation may move two directions at once:  First, in toward its center, its common life in worship, study, and fellowship centered in Jesus.  Second, it may begin to move outward in compassion, service, and self-sacrifice for the world that desperately needs to know the love of God.  The clearly defined boundary does not insulate the church from the world; rather, it should allow the church to be effective in ministry in the world.  If the church has no sense of its own boundary, there is no reason for its members to seek opportunities for ministry in the wider community. 
            Green outlines three driving reasons why early Christians saw sharing their faith with the world as so important (Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, p. 236ff).  First, they talked about their faith out of gratitude for the new life they had received in Christ.  Second, they had a sense of responsibility to God not to live in vain, not to squander their redeemed lives.  Third, they had a deep concern for the lost people all around them who needed the love of God but did not know where to look, or even that they were looking.  These people were effective evangelists because they were authentic disciples of Christ.
            This discipleship was not a strictly individualistic pursuit.  Here is another area in which we can learn from the early church.  Family and household units were extremely important in the early church.  A Christian household provided a sort of miniature base of operations for the church.  By the interaction of its members, by the visitors who came and went, even by its decor a Christian household could draw others to Christianity.  Family relationships were also a crucial part of Christian living.  A Christian wife whose husband was not a Christian faced a subtle and sometimes dangerous task, trying to lead her husband to be interested in Christianity without getting herself denounced and perhaps martyred. 
            Further, homes provided a context in which small groups of people could meet and discuss Christianity.  As Green says, in small group home contexts “there was no temptation  for either the speaker or the heckler to ‘play to the gallery’ as there was in a public place or open-air meeting” (p. 207)  Further, he says, “the sheer informality and relaxed atmosphere of the home, not to mention the hospitality which must have gone with it, all helped to make this form of evangelism particularly successful” (pp. 207-8).  Today’s church is making strides in this direction as we focus more on family ministry.  Rumblings within our Christian Education programs and committees indicate that we are trying to form a partnership between the home and the church in which both work together to nurture faith within the family.  This is good!  One vital aspect of authentic discipleship must be the development of households of faith that serve as discipleship centers not only for the family, but in some measure for the church and those who are attracted to the Christian faith.

            I have enjoyed this study immensely.  These readings and reflections have had a strong influence on my views of evangelism in the local congregation, as well as my thinking about the whole issue of the church’s dilemma in a post-Christian society.  My basic conclusion is that the key lesson to be learned from the sub-apostolic church for our own time is this:  The most crucial issue facing the church is to make disciples whose lives have been transformed by a relationship with Jesus Christ -- whose lives and lips show the reality and power of that relationship.  These disciples are the key to evangelism, church leadership, and effective ministry of any kind.   These are the people of God through whom God can communicate love to the world.
            One crucial step in making our congregations into centers of discipleship is that we need to rediscover the boundary between the church and the world, not to keep the world out of the church, but to provide identity for those who are following Jesus.  Without a clear boundary, a clear Christ-centered identity, the congregation decays into little more than a social club.
            Given the boundary, given the people growing in faith, how can the church -- especially the Lutheran church! -- be intentional about making disciples?  What programs, what organizational models, what emphasis or focus, what preaching and teaching, will be most effective?
            These questions fall outside the scope of this study.  However, I believe that households and small groups are crucial in the development of authentic disciples.  There is much room to learn here from the early church.  My reading this summer has been a bit frustrating; this study has been less thorough than I would have liked and more intuitive.  But I have been seeking advice for today’s church rather than a scholarly analysis of the early church.  Within this mix, I have found my work interesting and helpful as I prepare to work with small groups and leadership development on internship next year.

List of Works Cited and Consulted:

Carter, Stephen L.  The Culture of Disbelief.  ©1993.  Harper Collins Publishers.

Eberle, Gary.  The Geography of Nowhere.  ©1994.  Sheed &Ward, Kansas City.

Frend, W.H.C.  The Early Church.  ©1965, 1982.  Fortress Press. 

Green, Michael.  Evangelism in the Early Church.  ©1970.  Eerdman’s Publishing.

von Harnack, Adolf.  The Expansion of the Church in the First Three Centuries.

Mead, Loren.  The Once and Future Church.  ©1991.  The Alban Institute.

 - - - .  Transforming Congregations for the Future.  ©1994.  The Alban Institute.