Recovering from our love affair with bigness.

After Jesus’ ascension, the disciples must have looked like a sorry bunch as they made their way down the hillside. To say that they were a small, defensive group without influence would be almost to understate the case.

Less than three hundred years later, the Roman emperor himself would adopt Christianity. The entire Roman empire fell into line behind him. However much the joining of church and state under Constantine and his successors was a mixed blessing for true Christianity, it represented considerable success in the spread of the gospel from that lonely little Judean hill. By the end of the classical era (A.D. 500), there were Christian churches in every province and major city, as well as Christians in every stratum of Roman society.

What accounts for the utter permeation of the Roman world by Christianity? How did the shaky faith of a little band of Jews become the dominant religion of the empire?

We are inclined to look at the noble missionary heroes of the New Testament—Philip, Peter, John, Silas, Barnabas, and, above all, Paul. However grateful we ought to be for them, though, we must be careful not to misrepresent what they did. This was small-time evangelism: no media campaigns, no tents or stadiums, no P.A. systems, no choirs, no celebrity guests. Instead, there was a lot of tramping about, in ones or twos or threes or fours, conversing and preaching in homes and synagogues and marketplaces—even prisons. Scholars of the early church have concluded that the gospel spread so far, so fast because of local initiative, because ordinary Christians lived out their faith and took it with them as they moved around the empire.

To be sure, leadership and high-profile ministry ...

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