Yesterday, I summarized Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, which traces the sociological components that contributed to Christianity’s growth.

Today, we’re looking at what parts of Stark’s analysis may be helpful for church leaders today. The strengths of Stark’s proposal are many. His sociological analysis does not deny or minimize the supernatural elements of Christianity’s explosive growth.

Instead, we ought to see this book as an examination of the means God used to fulfill his purposes. A sociological approach should not be set against a supernatural approach. Understanding these human elements will help us make some points of application for society.

1. Understand that not everything Stark sees would be a worthwhile strategy for Christian growth in the future.

For example, Stark’s assertion that “both Peter and Paul sanctioned marriage between Christians and pagans” (111) is contested by Christian scholars. There is no doubt that Peter and Paul wrote in a way that took into consideration the presence of such marriages, but nowhere do we see such marriages prescribed.

On the contrary, one could argue that the apostles would have counseled against entering such unions. Stark is right that the early Christians displayed high levels of commitment, but it is an overstatement to assume that this commitment “made it safe for them to enter exogamous marriages” (114).

2. Note the correspondence between Christianity’s costly demands and its rapid rise.

Stark writes:

“It would seem that costly demands must always make a religion less attractive. And indeed, the economists’ law of demand predicts just that, other things remaining equal. But it turns out that other things do not remain equal when religions impose these kinds of costs on their members. Costly demands strengthen a religious group by mitigating “free-rider” problems that otherwise lead to low levels of member commitment and participation. Sacrifice and stigma mitigate the free-rider problems faced by religious groups” (177).

Why does Christianity thrive in conditions where there is a social cost to be paid?

First, it makes it harder for people to join the church and adopt Christian belief and practice. “High costs tend to screen out free riders.” Secondly, high costs are likely to increase the level of commitment and participation of those who do join the church (177).

The counterintuitive nature of this analysis is spot on. Far from making Christianity more mainstream and “easier” for people to join, pastors ought to embrace the social cost and demands as one of the most attractive features of the faith.

3. Embrace, don’t evade, the particulars of Christian teaching. 

Christian leaders today can also learn how the central elements of the faith have an inherent attraction to them that should be utilized in our evangelistic witness.

“Central doctrines of Christianity prompted and sustained attractive, liberating, and effective social relations and organizations” (211).

Doctrines such as the inclusive call to salvation for people from every ethnicity ought to be at the forefront of our witness.

Conclusion

The Rise of Christianity is a readable, engaging presentation of the sociological dynamics behind Christianity’s rapid growth. Church leaders who read this book will unlearn some common myths about our movement’s rise.

At the same time, Stark’s analysis provides us with fresh thought about how best to maximize the church’s effectiveness today, as we rely on the Holy Spirit to work through our methods in presenting the gospel message that transforms lives.

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9 thoughts on “How Does Christianity Grow? Lessons from Rodney Stark”

  1. brian says:

    Seems to me Christianity’s growth is largely the result of the new convenant’s law of love taking root. Christianity spread as Christians moved into impoverished and undeveloped areas and built schools and hospitals. Such serving through Christian love likely added to the ranks of Christians more than many of these other stated factors. We are called to humbly serve, and doing so serves as a witness of Christ’s love for a fallen world.

  2. Rebecca says:

    Does he return to address the issue of women being quietly influential in the church?

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      Rebecca,

      Stark does not do any prescriptive analysis. This blog post is a summary of some things I can think we can take away from his sociological analysis of the rise of early Christianity. And yes, I think the issue of women’s influence could be another take-away that should give today’s Christians food for thought.

  3. ForeBarca1899LB says:

    Persecution of Christians in the early church was sporadic. The Romans could not be bothered with sanctioning tanners, housemaids, and miners who all made up the bulk of the early Christians converts-the poorer class. Yet, where the Romans stepped into to persecute Christians, either for not worshipping the Emperor or because they wanted to rejuvenate the Greco-Roman religion, the faith grew like a wild brush fire on a California summer’s day.

  4. Nate Sauve says:

    Rebecca and Brian,

    You both are bringing up things that Starks book does deal with. This quote, ““Central doctrines of Christianity prompted and sustained attractive, liberating, and effective social relations and organizations” (211). Is basically Starks thesis, when the church lived out its teaching the church grew at a staggering rate.
    Empowering women in a patriarchal society, caring for the sick and poor especially as they were abandoned during plagues and widespread sickness helped people experience the love of the Christian community. And early Christians because they believed in heaven and believed they were called to selflessly love were willing to tell others and care for others despite the high personal costs.
    Read the Bible, do what it says. So simple, and yet so hard.

  5. the Old Adam says:

    “Read the Bible, do what it says.”

    I much prefer, ‘Read the Bible, believe what it says’.

  6. brian says:

    the Old Adam,

    Yes, believe, by all means. Yet, don’t discount “doing.”
    James 1… “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But he who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets but a doer that acts, he shall be blessed in his doing.”

  7. Adam C says:

    BiblicalTrainin (dot) org has a very interesting lecture from Dr. Gerald Bray on this very topic. Yall should check it out. It’s under the “Church History I” class.

  8. Greg Rehmke says:

    Reading The Rise of Christianity, I understood Stark’s discussion of Christian daughters marrying pagan men was more related to Christian families with their belief in life being sacred, having more daughters than pagan families who practiced an anti-daughter bias similar to many families in India and China today. So it seemed to me more an issue of there being more Christian daughters than available Christian men.

    Stark also emphasizes that Christianity spread first among the well-to-do in the Roman world, rather than the poor. I don’t know enough about research in this field to evaluate this claim, but I assume it is supported by research.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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