Viral videos are everywhere—whether they showcase cute animals, acts of kindness, or practical jokes. In order to join the fun (or make some money), plenty of people now film videos they hope will go viral.
But even though a viral video may be on the Trending list for a little while, it doesn’t last. Sooner or later something better comes along, and it’s old news. A viral movement however is infectious and contagious. It moves and spreads and makes lasting impact.
In Contagious, author Jonah Berger talks about what makes for a “social epidemic.” A social epidemic can be defined this way:
Instances where products, ideas, and behaviors diffuse through a population. They start with a small set of individuals or organizations and spread, often from person to person, almost like a virus.
All of this raises the question: how was the early church like a viral movement? How were the early Christians “contagious”?
Larry Hurtado and Rodney Stark (see here and here) have done sociological and theological work in order to answer these questions. But we can see clues pointing us to an answer in the New Testament itself.
Take the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, for example, and his description of a church that was thriving, even though it started with chaos and persecution. What led a beleaguered bunch of believers to become a “viral movement” that outpaced and outlasted the trending fads and fashions of the day? I see four important components of a church that goes viral.
1. Faith, hope, and love drive good works.
Good deeds aren’t exclusive to Christians. People inside and outside the church give to charity. Viral videos show celebrities who help struggling families or homeless people.
People do good works for a variety of reasons, some that are self-centered. Even church people may do the right thing for the wrong reasons: because of guilt, for social acceptance, or out of a begrudging sense of obligation.
But Paul commended the church in Thessalonica for “your work produced by faith, your labor motivated by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 1:3). Good works that stand out flow from faith (because we know and love the God we serve), are motivated by love (because we value people created in the image of God), and are suffused with hope (because we understand that our good works point to the day God will renew all things ).
When faith, hope, and love drive the good works of a church, our neighbors should sense an other-worldly selflessness. Any good work, even with the wrong motivation, can “go viral” in the moment. But the church that becomes a viral movement has a deeper fountain of love from which to draw.
2. God’s grace grounds our confidence and joy.
It’s easy these days to think that programs or marketing or gimmicks will make a church “go viral” for a moment. But a viral movement that lasts must be filled with people whose roots run deep—men and women whose confidence and joy are grounded in God’s grace. Paul wrote the Thessalonians: “For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you . . . and you welcomed the message with joy from the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess. 1:4-6).
The church that goes viral in the long-term, not the short-term, rests not in the superficial, but the substantive. Not in outward admiration, but inward assurance that God has chosen us out of grace to be his people and to be about his mission. Divine election leads us to proclaim the Word with confidence and to receive the Word with joy.
3. Faith becomes audible and visible.
Too many Christians today stay silent about their faith, except in cases when they’re talking to other believers. But the church grows only when the word of the Lord “rings out from us,” not when we are reticent and tentative. “You became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia,” Paul wrote the Thessalonians. “For the word of the Lord rang out from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place that your faith in God has gone out” (1 Thess. 1:7-8a).
The church that goes viral is full of people whose faith is heard from their lips and seen in their lives. Audible faith through sharing the gospel, visible faith through obedience to Christ.
Viral videos and blockbuster movies happen when people talk about them. If we truly feel the effect of Christ’s sacrifice and work, why do we not talk about him? Why do we speak more about the latest great movie, or our recent job promotion, or favorite vacation spot? We should be challenged by this image of “the word of the Lord ringing out” from the church.
4. Forsaking idols leads to faithful service and fervent hope.
Another characteristic of a viral church is that, as Paul wrote, “you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9).
In the New Testament era, people served idols—statues, shrines, and objects that represented powerless gods they hoped would give them success and happiness in life. Today we chase the idol of possessions, the idol of our reputation, the idol of sexual pleasure, or the idol of recreation. We take good things that God has given us, and we make them ultimate things in our lives. Whenever this happens, we’re serving idols and are enslaved by them.
The church will not become a viral movement until our passionate proclamation of the gospel is matched by a ruthless dethroning of idols. This is the counter-ing part of being a counterculture that embodies the beauty of the gospel.
What will make the church go viral? Let’s pray for God to raise up a generation of Christians who are less enthralled by whatever is “trending,” and more and more grounded in the gospel that enables us to become a viral movement with a firm foundation and a vibrant hope.