The Rise of Christianity

by Rodney Stark (1996), reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

This is a powerful book analyzing church growth patterns of the early church, using contemporary social-scientific theories suggested why people form new religious movements. It is a challenging account of the rise of Christianity.

‘Attachments lie at the heart of conversion, which means that conversion tends to proceed along social networks formed by interpersonal attachments’ (p 18).  ‘Successful founders of new faiths typically turn first to those with whom they already have strong attachments’ (p 18), and people who are deeply committed to any particular faith do not go out and join some other faith’ (p 19).

The early church linked highly social ethical code with religion.  According to Stark, Christianity served as a revitalization movement that arose in response to the misery, chaos, fear and brutality of life in the urban-Grecian world.  Christianity revitalized life.

To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope.  To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity produced a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity.  And to cities faced with epidemics, fires and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services (p 161).

The empire created misery by its ethnic diversity; it created economic and political unity at the cost of cultural chaos, the immense diversity of tongues, cults, traditions and levels of education.  People of many cultures, speaking in many languages, worshipping all manner of gods, had been dumped helter-skelter.

A major way in which Christianity served as a revitalization movement was in offering a coherent culture that was entirely stripped of ethnicity. Christianity also brought a new conception of humanity to a world saturated with capricious cruelty (p 213, 214).

Stark’s book is a good analysis of church growth methods of the first centuries, and applicable to ours today.