Historians have estimated that there were about 2500 Christians in the world shortly after the Apostle Paul met his demise (circa 64 AD). To my recollection, I had never heard this figure before I read it in a recent newspaper article. It seems drastically low to me, but I guess we had to start somewhere. I’d love to know how they figured that out.
When Jesus died and rose again, there were about 120 followers cowering in an upper room in Jerusalem. The Messiah had promised to send the Holy Spirit, and He did not disappoint. Without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, there would have, undoubtedly, never been a church at all. We would have messed it up for sure. Hiding in a secluded room will never be the best strategy for spreading the word. It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now.
Something Went Right
Those historians say that by the year 350 AD, the number of Christians had swelled to thirty-four million. Today, the figure is somewhere around 2.3 billion (over 30% of the world’s population). Something went right somewhere along the way. The something that went right (aside from the indwelling strength of the Holy Spirit) was the fact that those believers left the room and began to spread the word.
As far as I know, the strategy has never changed. Well, let me revise that statement. The Biblical directive has never changed. We have often tried to amend, tailor, and obfuscate it, but it’s still right there in Jesus’ last words before He ascended. “Go!” (Matthew 20:19)
“Go” is the operative word. The following phrase, “make disciples of all nations,” can only be done by going. The 120 believers were forced go by the spark lit through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. In a few years, most of them got comfortable with their lives in Jerusalem. Once again, they were forced to go. This time, it was through the persecution that was brought against the church. The Apostle Paul (known as Saul at the time) was part of the persecution (see Acts 7:57-58). When he converted to Christianity, he became part of the persecuted.
Saul Became Paul
Christians at that time fled the persecution in Jerusalem and relocated to all parts of the known world. Saul became Paul and made missionary trips, establishing Christian communities wherever he went. He left a trail of converts, believers, and followers along the way. He wasn’t the only one, but he was definitely the most famous. By the time Paul was done, there were only 2500 Christians in the world. Now there are 2.3 billion. Somebody did something right.
The strange thing is this. While Christianity is growing around the world, many congregations in this country are dying on the vine. They’re growing old, shrinking, and closing up shop. Some are just getting disgusted and leaving. The number of clergy is shrinking.
Maybe we need to get out of the room in which we’re hiding. Jesus’ final words were important. It’s time to go.
[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently pastor of Smith Chapel in Great Falls, VA.]