(By Tim Keller, The Gospel Coalition). Early Christians before Constantine were highly persecuted for being too exclusive, narrow, and strange, and yet at the same time they were fast growing, especially in the urban centers. (See, for example, Alan Kreider’s chapter “The Improbable Growth of the Church” in The Patient Ferment of the Early Church.) This has been called an effective missionary encounter with Roman society. There was both offense and attraction, confrontation and persuasion.
Christianity didn’t adapt to culture in order to gain more adherents, but neither did it remain a small, withdrawn band. Christianity confronted and critiqued the culture, and believers suffered for it—yet the faith also convinced many, attracting growing numbers of converts daily.
What Can We Learn?
It’s obvious in Western societies that Christians are again seen as too exclusive and narrow, and that they too may soon be excluded from many government, academic, and corporate jobs, and be socially marginalized in various other ways.
What can we learn from the early church so that we can have our own effective missionary encounter?
First, we must avoid thinking that faithful witness will mean either fast, explosive growth (if we get the ministry formula just right) or long-term dwindling with little fruit or impact. First Peter 2:11–12 gives us a brief summary of the original missionary dynamic when it tells us, in one sentence, that some outside the church accused and persecuted them, while others saw their good deeds and glorified God.
Second, we must avoid either assimilation or rigidity. There are indeed those who, in order to draw thousands, play down the more offensive and demanding aspects of Christianity. There are also those who insist that any effort at all to adapt our evangelistic presentations to particular cultural mistakes and aspirations is wrong. Yet Gregory of Nyssa, in the prologue to his Great Catechism, insisted that you couldn’t win a polytheist and a Jew by the same arguments. You must frame your exposition of the gospel differently in each case. So must we.
Here are five things our missionary encounter might contain.
1. A public apologetic, both high-level and street-level.
The early church developed effective public apologetics (e.g., Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origen, the author of the Epistle to Diognetus, and Augustine). We must not present a purely rational apologetic, but also a cultural one. Augustine developed a “High Theory” critique of pagan culture. He defended the exclusive-looking beliefs of Christians like this: “Our beliefs and lives do not in any way weaken the social fabric—rather they strengthen them. Indeed, you will never have the society you want if you maintain your polytheism.”
But besides high-level critical theory, there must also be street-level apologetics. We need to show how the main promises secular culture makes regarding meaning, satisfaction, freedom, and identity can’t be fulfilled. We need an explosion of “memoir” apologetics—thoughtful, accessible, and wildly diverse stories of people who encountered Christ and had their lives changed by the gospel.