Before Pentecost (after 3 years of Jesus’ teaching, healing, feeding 5,000 people-at-a-time, raising dead folks back to life, and his own and death AND resurrection), there was only a puny 120 believers gathered in the Upper Room. Any church growth expert would tell you— that’s not very good. Then Pentecost happened and 3000 people were saved on the first day. So there were 3,120 believers. Church historians estimate that by AD 100 (or about the time that the last disciple, John, died), there were maybe 25,000 believers. In 67 years give or take, from Jesus’ resurrection to AD 100, only 25,000 believers? Again, that is not particularly impressive.
But guess what happened between the years 100 and 313 (the year Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire)? Christianity went from 25,000 believers to (droll roll please) 20 MILLION!
How in the world did that happen?
There was not a charismatic preacher traveling around collecting hordes of followers (although I am sure that were great preachers proclaiming the Good News). No get-Christianity-quick plans. Instead, many historians point to two horrific plagues as the reason for the growth.
Typically, you would think that a widespread epidemic would hurt church attendance (notice our numbers on Sunday), but historians say that Christianity grew rapidly in the midst of those horrific plagues. At the height of the plagues in the year AD251– 5,000 people were dying every day. It was bad, yet Christianity grew.
Here’s what happened: The plagues came. Everyone fled the cities. Everyone but the sick and Christians. Christians willingly stayed behind to ministered to the sick and the dying. Dionysius, the Bishop of Alexandria wrote how Christians responded to the plague of 250AD. He wrote:
“Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ.” (Alan Cross, How Early Christians Handled the Plague).
They didn’t ignore the problem. They didn’t imitate the culture and hysterically take off running (or hoarding toilet paper). They didn’t conduct protest rallies to condemn those who caught the plague or the governmental leaders for not doing enough to stop the plague. They were present. They ministered. Some of them died because they became infected. They understood the risks. They could catch something deadly by their actions. But they also knew the rewards– those to whom they were ministering might come to know the love of Jesus. Not everyone died. Some survived and became followers of Jesus. Family members noticed who cared for their loved ones and they too turned to Christ. The church grew in trying times.
Christians behaving like Jesus has always been attractive.
Let it be said of us– that in the midst of this latest pandemic that Christians are: Loving others. Caring for the needy. Refusing to hysterically react in fear. In the midst of global uncertainty, may this be the church’s finest hour!