the weblog of Alan Knox

Christian community vs. personal religious experience

Posted by on Jul 30, 2009 in books, church history, community | 11 comments

A few years ago, a friend gave me a book by Peter Garnsey and Richard Saller called The Roman Empire: Economy, Society, and Culture. As you can tell from the title, this is a book about the Roman Empire from around 27 BC to around AD 235. The book is not written from a Christian perspective, but there is a section about the rise of Christianity that is very interesting.

In a section on religion in the Roman Empire, the authors begin by stating that Christianity was rarely mentioned by Roman authors during this time:

It is striking how little we hear about early Christianity from non-Christian writers. In the Severan era alone, sometimes seen as a period of significant growth, Christianity is not mentioned in Cassius Dio [~AD 155-229], Herodian [~AD 170-240] or Philostratus [~AD 170-247]. Christians impinged more on the world by the time of Decius [~AD 201-251], but were still a small minority, and predominantly of low or modest status. (pg 176)

According to the authors (and others books that I’ve read), persecution of Christians on a large scale did not begin until the reign of Decius. Before this, there were instances of local persecutions directed at Christians and other “atheists” who refused to venerate the Roman gods or the Imperial cult.

So, if Christians still made up a relatively small percentage of the Roman Empire at this time, what caused it to suddenly flourish? The authors make an important observation:

The solution to the problem of Christianity’s success is not to evoke an alleged weakening in the fabric of polytheism (for example, a supposed increased tendency toward syncretism), which reduced its appeal and gave additional impetus to Christianity. On the contrary, paganism at the level of personal religious experience was manifesting considerable vitality, especially near the end of our period. (pg. 176)

So, according to the authors, Christianity did not begin to increase because of a decrease in interested in the Roman pagan religions. Notice particularly that the authors state that during the time that the number of Christians began to increase rapidly, there was also a rise in “personal religious experience” among pagan religions.

What, then, did the Christians have to offer? The authors offer two suggestions. First, “the power of the Christian god as displayed in miracles” played a large role in convincing some pagans of the truth claims of Christianity. But, there was a second reason that pagans who were enjoying “personal religious experiences” found Christianity enticing:

The role of Christian community in supporting the individual and nurturing spiritual growth may be readily admitted. (pg. 176)

In a time when pagans were enjoying “personal religious experience”, Christian community began to win the day. Apparently, more and more pagans began to understand that there “personal religious experiences” did not nurture their spiritual growth. As they looked around, they noticed the Christians, and apparently, they noticed something different about them.

What was different? Community. In spite of their “personal religious experiences”, the pagans began to yearn for real community… community with one another and community with God.

Today, “personal religious experience” has taken the forefront in our society as well, among non-Christians as well as among Christians. While the church should always pray that God would work wonders and miracles to draw people to himself, we can also begin to demonstrate the type of community that the Spirit desires to create among us.

We should never underestimate the importance of community both for our own spiritual growth and the growth of the community, but also for evangelism. Community in Christ that is witnessed and shared is a great testimony to the fact that “God is certainly among [us]”.


11 Comments

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  1. 7-30-2009

    Good stuff. What sets us apart (or should set us apart) from the rest of the world is the love we have and show for one another. This is how we proclaim to the world “whose we are”. This is proclaiming ‘the gospel’ by living the gospel.

  2. 7-30-2009

    WOW! This is interesting, and it rings true – the explosive growth of the Church in Acts coincides with a beautiful description of Chrsitian community that was happening at the time.

    This Christian Community is noticeably absent from the Body in America! How can we get back to the kind of Christian Community that attracts pagans? I feel Jesus layed it out for us – Love God and Love others – I think that’s Jesus’ evangelism strategy.

    We are tooooootally not doing that! Please God help us to do this again, whatever that means, please!

  3. 7-30-2009

    Wade,

    You’re absolutely correct! Love should set us apart; both love of God and love of others. That love should be demonstrated and obvious to those around us.

    Jesse,

    There are bright spots as far as Christian community goes. Also, I think that any believer can begin to build community with others in Christ. It may be difficult because of their circumstances, but it is possible.

    -Alan

  4. 7-30-2009

    Very interesting post. I had always heard about the decline of pagan religion in the Roman Empire. Once again an accepted historical truth may not be entirely accurate.

  5. 7-30-2009

    “We should never underestimate the importance of community both for our own spiritual growth and the growth of the community, but also for evangelism.”

    Alan, the truth of this is certainly becoming increasingly clear in recent days. One of my communities is yearning to be this sort of community without it being something we can take on and take of like a set of clothes. So far, it is taking much more restraint and restfulness than I’m use to, but the end is worth the journey.

    Thanks for the fine post.

  6. 7-30-2009

    At some point you have to make a choice…

    What is more important to you; true community or super organized, efficient high-gloss church.

    Is it worth it to wade through the stormy sea of true emotions, fears, pains, lies, broken hearts, etc., that come out when you start getting down and deep with a people or will you settle for nice and clean programs that enable pre packaged relationships of the most shallow type.

    I am not sure how we ever got to the point where this became an option? If you have to choose between seeking out true community and seeking out the right color of interlocking, yet stackable, chair I would think John 13:34-35 would set you pretty straight!

    Christ centered communities who really love each other are not A priority…it is THE priority and call on the saints in this world.

    Or maybe not and i am overreacting. Sometimes i do feel pretty close to that guy who i hand the mini plastic cup to at the end of the aisle. I wonder what they do with all of those anyway?

  7. 8-1-2009

    Adam,

    I had always heard about the decline in pagan religion. Perhaps attendance at corporate pagan religious rituals was declining while seeking personal pagan religious experiences was on the increase?

    Laura,

    You said, “One of my communities is yearning to be this sort of community without it being something we can take on and take of like a set of clothes.” I think that if community is something we can put on and take off, then it’s not really community… at least, not community in Christ.

    Matt,

    I don’t think you’re overreacting. I think the importance of community in Christ has certainly been replaced in recent year – perhaps longer.

    -Alan

  8. 8-2-2009

    Alan,

    I agree, community–true community–is who we are. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to “do community” rather than be it. The idea of resting in God keeps coming to mind when I think of being over mere doing, for I think when we try to do something, we take our eyes off him and focus on ourselves. The result is inauthentic life. The other end of the issue is confusing rest with laziness. Conceptually, at least, the sweet spot, so to speak, can be hidden to our eyes (usually by us).

  9. 8-2-2009

    Laura,

    Yes. I think part of “resting in God” as community begins with knowing our identity (that is, the identity of the community) and being comfortable with that. In other words, accepting who we are (or whose we are) apart from what we do. That’s not easy to do, as you said.

    -Alan

  10. 9-20-2012

    Relational love with people at work or home reaches deeper into people’s “individual” barriers and is an example of the life of Christ. Connecting relationally with others has to be void of mirroring individualism, and self protection. When others see that you can hear and see them as people who aren’t to be judged, but cared for and respected as you would want to be, then they see the community that Christ offers which is one anothering. It is both evangelistic as well as an example of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.
    Alot of church today has been about a programs or works that are not based out of actual relational life with people in the varied spheres we
    Live

  11. 9-21-2012

    Dori,

    That’s a great point, especially this: “Alot of church today has been about a programs or works that are not based out of actual relational life with people.” Many of the instructions and examples that we find in Scripture are impossible without real relationships. Yet, we typically try to force things in spite of not knowing one another. It doesn’t work.

    -Alan