To be honest, the first chapter, entitled Conversion and Christian Growth, challenged my faith more than anything that I have read. The reason being, using patterns and ratios for conversions, Professor Stark demonstrated how Christianity fits the mold as far other religions go. What happened was that he made Christianity seem so ordinary, and I believe that it is extra-ordinary.
The good news has been that chapters 4, 5, 6, and 7 (which I read this morning) show examples of how unique Christianity was in the first century, and how it began to change the world. One of the fundamental beliefs I have about life that the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead changed everything. This world would never be the same because of that event, and through the middle of this book you see examples of how Christianity made a positive impact in this world.
Chapter 4 dealt with epidemics and sickness and how Christians showed compassion to those who were sick and dying while the pagans just left them alone to die. Chapter 5 dealt with how Christianity improved the life of women. Chapters 6 and 7 deals with how Christianity improved life in the cities.
Professor Stark closes chapter 7 with this:
“For what they brought was not simply an urban movement, but a new culture capable of making life in Greco-Roman cities more tolerable” (p. 162)
That phrase, new culture, leapt off the page at me. What Jesus offered to people, and what the early Christians took to the world was not simply a new belief system, but a new way a living. In the multi-cultural stew that was the Roman Empire a new god or a new philosophy was not a big deal, but a life that produced hope was a big deal.
I think this is one of the areas that we need to take a lesson from the early church. The American Church has spent so much time trying to “Christianize” culture, that we have not offered people a real alternative. Instead what we offer is a watered down version of what they already have.
What the Church needs to create a new culture and not just try to “Christianize” the old one. People need to know that there is an alternative way to live life, that hope is found in following Jesus, and that the Church genuinely cares for people.
While that sounds good the problem lies in the reality that to have a new culture means that we must first reject the old culture. Way too many of us are satisfied with our “Christian” version of culture to desire a new culture. We want to be able to watch the movies we want to watch, to listen to the music we want to listen to, to follow the desires of our hearts, and to live the way we want to. We are satisfied with believing in Jesus, but we are really not all that interested in obeying Jesus.
The divorce rate, credit card debt, alcohol abuse, and sexual addiction are all indicators that we live in a nation that is crying out for a new way to live, but we who claim to follow Christ are more interested in living like everyone else. Take a moment and consider what Peter wrote in 1 Peter 1:17-19
And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one's deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. (ESV)
I know that there are many passages I could have used that teach the importance of living differently from the world, but I wanted to use this passage because it communicates an important truth: the futile ways inherited from your forefathers. Ultimately that is what culture is, it is the way of life that has been handed down to us from our parents. Peter calls this way of living futile. Here is my hope and prayer: that we will come to see the way the culture lives as futile. Only then will we be willing to live differently, and in the process show the world that there is a better way to live.