How Does Christianity Grow? Lessons from Rodney Stark
Recently, 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.
“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.
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.