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]”.