A good friend of mine died recently. We hadn’t seen each other for more than five years. But there are people that you meet in life whose wisdom you come to value and to rely on, irrespective of whether you actually get to spend much time together.
In the final days of Alan’s illness, I was able to honour him by reading his important and final book, on the early church and its mission. It is a provocative read, not just for the historical story that it tells, but for the probing questions that the history leaves for us to consider in our own time.
The book asks a deceptively simple question: how do we explain the growth of the early church? Christian faith and Christian communities appeared on the scene as a deeply strange and novel form of religious expression. There were no obvious reasons for anyone to become Christian.
The attitude of wider society and culture ran along a spectrum from indifference to hostility. Christian faith then, as increasingly now, just didn’t make any sense to the vast majority of the population.
How did the early Christians respond to the challenge of living in a situation where they were in a minority, with barely any power or influence? How did they understand their mission? What kind of evangelistic strategy did they pursue? What stories and practices kept them faithful?
Of the many possible answers to those questions, my friend, after many years of study and reflection, came to the conclusion that early Christians knew how to be patient. The story and teachings of Jesus reminded them that it wasn’t their task to change the world.
Instead they were to learn to trust the God who is revealed in Jesus, and to allow their lives to bear witness to the good news and alternative hope that Jesus proclaimed.
The earliest Christians weren’t too interested in securing influence, or taking control. They sensed that attempts to coerce other people into seeing things the same way, or the desire to compel the rest of society to live by the same values, would be to fail to understand the character of God; a God whose patience with us is revealed in Jesus Christ.
They cultivated this patience by focusing on the things that matter: worship in genuine communities of mutual support, care for the poor, honesty in work and business, immersion in the reading and interpretation of scripture, refusing to participate in behaviour that diminished life, or destroyed relationship. All of this was made possible by the deep and vibrant hope that they had in God’s presence and God’s promises.
The early Christians knew that such things would not occur naturally, and that they needed explicit and long-term nurturing over time. The early practice of providing significant instruction (known as catechesis) prior to baptism was crucial, with recommendations that people needed to spend up to three years in this process, so they could fully grasp the significance of the promises they made when being baptised. Worship formed identity, and possessed a sincerity and a mystery that was enticing to others.
In short, these early believers developed a culture of patience, and that patience became deeply attractive to those who had grown tired of, or been damaged by, the impatient forces of empire, hierarchy and false promise.
Of course, this probably oversimplifies a complex historical picture (the early Christians were also given to forms of impatience and, in time, rather embraced the need to coerce belief and conformity). But, as Alan wrote, an understanding of those early generations perhaps helps us remember to refuse the temptation to deal with the challenges of our own time through ‘facile generalisations … or how-to formulas.’
We live in impatient times, and have been taught to think that with the right planning, hard work, and clear implementation, we can adjust our lives to ensure a good outcome. We would rather live with a clear idea about where the next steps should be, and how to take them.
But there is always the danger of thinking that we can manage our way to a new future, that the manipulation of structures or reallocation of resources will secure the way ahead. And when things don’t work out, or we feel like we are losing control, or we don’t like the look of the path in front of us, we can easily succumb to impatience.
At its heart, the question of the church’s place in the world is answered by thinking about the focus of our witness. To what or to whom does all that we do point? What kind of God is reflected in our common life and our well-intended search for relevance and effective forms of service?
In the end, we are looking for renewal, and that comes from God and so cannot be controlled. We can work for it, position ourselves better to receive it, and pray for it. But we must be patient, because this is the work of God.
The book referred to in this article is Alan Kreider’s The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire (Baker Academic Press, 2016).