August 5, 2020

Riffs: 12:10:06 Alan Hirsch on The Apostolic Genius

The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional ChurchCourtesy of the thoroughly agitated Bill Kinnon, a post by Alan Hirsch on “The Apostolic Genius.” How did the early church do what they did? (Without cool ads!) Take it away, Mr. Hirsch.

About four years ago I attended a seminar on missional church where the speaker asked the question “How many Christians do you think there were in the year 100AD?” He then asked “how many Christians do you think there were just before Constantine came on the scene, say 310AD?” Here is the somewhat surprising answer…

100AD There are as little as 25 000 Christians
310AD There are as many as 20 000 000 Christians

He then asked the question, and it has haunted me to this day, “how did they do this?” “How did they grow from being a small movement to the most significant religious force in the Roman Empire in two centuries?” Now that’s a question to initiate a journey! And delving into this question drove me to the discovery of what I will call Apostolic Genius (the inbuilt life force and guiding mechanism of God’s people) and the living components or elements that make it up. These components I have tagged missional DNA or mDNA for short.

So let me ask you the question—how did the early Christians do it? And before you respond, here are some qualifications you must factor into your answer.

They were an illegal religion throughout this period: At best, they were tolerated; at the very worst they were very severely persecuted.
They didn’t have any church buildings as we know them: While archaeologists have discovered chapels dating from this period, they were definite exceptions to the rule and they tended to be very small converted houses.
They didn’t even have the Scriptures as we know them: They were putting the canon together during this period.
They didn’t have an institutional leadership: At times of relative calm prototypal elements of institution did appear, but from what we consider institutional these were at best pre-institutional by comparison.
They didn’t have seeker sensitive services, youth groups, worship bands, seminaries, or commentaries, etc.
They actually made it hard to join the church. By the late second century aspiring converts had to undergo a significant initiation period to prove they were worthy.
In fact they had none of the things we would ordinarily employ to solve the problems of the church, and yet they grew from twenty five thousand to (around) twenty million in two hundred years! So, how did the early church do it? In answering that question, we can perhaps find the answer to the question for the church and mission in our day and in our context. For herein lies the powerful mystery of church in its most authentic form.

But before the example of the Early Christian Movement can be dismissed as a freak of history, there is another perhaps even more astounding manifestation of that unique and explosive power inherent in all of God’s people in our own time—namely, the underground church in China. Theirs is a truly remarkable story: About the time when Mao Zedong took power and initiated the systemic purge of religion from society; the church in China which was well established and largely modeled on Western forms due to colonization, was estimated to number about two million adherents. As part of the this systematic persecution, Mao banished all foreign missionaries and ministers, nationalized all church property, killed all the senior leaders, either killed or imprisoned all second and third level leaders, banned all public meetings of Christians with the threat of death or torture, and then proceeded to perpetrate one of the cruelest persecutions of Christians on historical record.

The explicit aim of the Cultural Revolution was to obliterate Christianity (and all religion) from China. At the end of the reign of Mao and his system in the late 70’s, and the subsequent lifting of the so called ‘Bamboo Curtain’ in the early 80’s, foreign missionaries and church officials were allowed back into the country, albeit under strict supervision. They expected to find the church totally decimated and the disciples a weak and battered people. On the contrary, they discovered that Christianity had flourished beyond all imagination. The estimates then were about 60 million Christians in China, and counting! And it has grown significantly since then. David Aikman, former Beijing bureau chief for Time magazine, suggests in his book Jesus in Beijing that Christians may number as many as 80 million. If anything, in the Chinese phenomenon, we are witnessing the most significant transformational Christian movement in the history of the church. And remember, not unlike the early church these people had very few Bibles (at times they shared only one page to a house church and then swapped that page with another house group.) They had no professional clergy, no official leadership structures, no central organization, no mass meetings, and yet they grew like mad. How is this possible? How did they do it?

What I suggest now is that you might wish to try and give your answers to this question. Lets chew on it together, try and distill the elements that make for phenomenal growth. Don’t try and translate these for Western contexts as yet. Just suggest answers and some reasons as to how they did it.


  1. This is our response to “how the early church/Chinese church did it”:

    1.) Persecution forces them to find shelter in each other. The predominate culture has orphaned the Christians socially and politically for choosing the Jesus way. Community is formed for survival as well as for growing in the faith. This is also very attractive to outsiders in an otherwise atomized (Communist/despotic) society where anyone could be deemed the next enemy of the state.

    2.) The lack of Scripture (or the ability to read)creates the need for memorization and a verbally-oriented tradition. Rehearsing the stories, the songs, the psalms helps in personal growth. When imprisonment, torture, and isolation comes, the believers can feed themselves from the wealth of the Word within. Chinese pastors make circuts between meetings with a certain set of scripture and songs memorized to share with each cell. The group learns it and repeat it until the next time the pastor returns.

    3.) Persecution also refines those who are gifted in leadership. Its fairly easy to pick out those who will stay true to the flock when the heat is on. Elder leaders focus on intense discipling of young potentials because they don’t know how long until the soldiers come for them.

    4.) Tying into the verbal-oriented culture, the Chinese/ancient world did not have the convenience of Christian radio/tv/mass print media. In order to learn of Christ, you pretty much have to be in physical contact with other Christians. No lazy contributions to international media ministries (unless it is an apostle, in which case, you’ve probably met them already). China and the ancient world also had a strong family ethos. If you are shunned from your blood relatives, your faith community is it.

    We might be wrong so you can reprove/instruct us.

    Anna & Jeff

  2. Dear Michael
    As always I find you raising great questions. In this case however I think I would take a little different approach in explaining the growth that you reference. The Bible talks about fertile soil. I am not sure that anything all that special and certainly not anything directly replicable here in the West was being done in either the early church or China under Mao. Instead, our problem with not being able to see anything even coming close to what occured there or what is occuring now in the global south is that the soil in the West is hard, stony, and grossly polluted. The seed falls as it will. It is the quality of the soil not the skill or diligence of the sower that ultimately determaines the increase.
    Riley D Allen

  3. Jesus was a wonderful secret to them. Doesn’t everyone want to know secrets? When you *know* a great secret, don’t you feel the urge to tell people?

    Today we might call it ‘viral marketing’.

  4. Michael –

    I think this article in Touchstone by Mike Aquilina a direct and fascinating answer to your question.

  5. I just finished reading “The Heavenly Man”, the story of the Chinese christian, Brother Yun. He believed that persecution is a necessary factor in church growth. What I found MOST interesting is that on a preaching trip in America, after his escape from China, he discovered that, “In China, Christians are persecuted with beatings and imprisonment. In the West, Christians are persecuted by the words of other Christians” (p. 309). I completely believe that those who try to know the truth and live accordingly will experience persecution, no matter where they live. Jesus made it clear: if the world won’t love me, it won’t love you either! I suspect that we in the West use religion to protect ourselves from truthful living and therefore persecution.

  6. I was going to talk about Rodney Stark’s thesis, but Mike Aquilina’s good article beats me to it. The short version: Stark the sociologist argues that conversion happens through social networks. In modern studies of conversion, researchers have found that the single greatest indicator of religious conversion is immersion into a social network that embraces the new religion.

    To put it in more theological terms, when the Christian community embraces and cares for people, they experience fellowship with the risen Christ. To be cared for by the Church, after all, is to experience the care of Jesus who very closely identifies with the Community.

    As the first commenter pointed out, persecution lends a strong cohesion to the group. I would argue that one of the major differences between the pre- and post-Constantinan churches is the degree of meaningful ties to the new community, and the necessity of cutting ties to the world, the Roman civic community.

    When folks in the Roman Empire became Christians, generally speaking, they had to give up certain trades, particular behaviors, and embrace a new story that would form the basis of their interactions in society. And it’s not for nothing that these Christians were called “atheists” – withdrawal from any and all participation in the civic cult was a concrete rejection of society’s Roman order. The Christian Eucharist was (among many other things, of course) a subversive counter-imagining of how social relationships fit together.

  7. Maybe there really is something to that whole foolishness and weakness phenomena.

  8. I do not know the answer to your question, but I spent a year living in a village and worshipped with the local Christians.

    A typical recent conversion story there was that someone was converted after a family member converted. At first they disapproved, but gradually were won over.

    The first family member usually attributed the conversion to a healing experience. They had a significant illness, consulted with Western and Chinese doctors, maybe saw a Qigong healer, and prayed to ancestors or other gods to no avail, then they met a Christian who urged them to pray to Jesus (or prayed for them), they were healed, and they became Christians.

    The urban situation in China is quite different, I think. I have no idea how that would compare to a typical conversion in ancient Rome.

    Other religions do not have a very strong following in north China where I have lived. People do seem to be thirsting for something to believe in.

  9. This is a great question, and so are the responses. It’s going to keep me thinking for quite a while, but a few ideas come straight to mind:

    First, under persecution, the early church and the Chinese church required commitment and authenticity. That people can be killed for believing in Jesus would require something more wholehearted out of a person than what is usually required of Western Christians nowdays (despite the fact that being mocked is genuine persecution). The sheer authenticity and commitment of Christians was probably quite attractive and convincing to observers, who were living in a spiritual void in both situations.

    Second, in ancient Rome and in 20th century China, Christianity didn’t come with familiar and tired cultural baggage. People in Rome couldn’t look back on centuries’ of mistakes made by Christians and use that as an excuse to reject the Church. In China, surely they knew some Western history, but for them it might not have been as visceral. Roman and Chinese Christians also didn’t see widespread hypocrisy that exists when Christianity (or any religion or ideology) is a prominent cultural phenomenon, whereas they probably did see widespread hypocrisy in the dominant religions and ideologies of their time and place. In general, Christianity couldn’t be used as a means for guileful people to gain social standing. That in itself cuts back a lot of hypocrisy. Not to mention that Christianity also had the allure of the new and the forbidden.

    Third, and most importantly, without Bibles or institutions as we are accustomed to having them, the churches and individual Christians had to rely on the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, which, to put it simply, is the life, power and unity of the Church. Life is contagious. Where the Spirit is unbridled, miracles are normal, hearts are changed and minds are renewed. Miracles are a powerful witness. People who are genuinely renewed to christlikeness and deep, authoritative knowledge of God are an even more powerful witness. Nowadays, in the West, Christians have so much Bible and Bible parsing that they often neglect the eternal Spirit of God who literally is our eternal life and our source of experiential, nonanalytical knowledge of God.

    I would also echo the words of Anna & Jeff above, when they mention the importance of the verbally oriented tradition. The very words of God hidden deep in believers’ hearts is another powerful witness.