A few weeks ago I spent two days on the campus of Virginia Wesleyan College with Bishop Tim Whitaker. The retired United Methodist Bishop led a seminar about the mission of the church today. He used the primitive church (first 300 years) as an example of the church growing while not being the religion of the culture and at times being received hostilely.
The two day seminar walked the assembled group of United Methodist clergy (I’m not sure how I got in) through the history of the primitive church, the first 300 years after Christ’s resurrection.
As I’ve been processing what Bishop Whitaker spoke about I have come to the conclusion that the primitive church has a lot in common with youth ministry. The primitive church represents Christianity in it’s infancy. A time when the church grew not because of attracting people to a new building with a shiny new sanctuary but rather the Gospel message of Good News served as the only needed attraction. The primitive church grew in the midst of not being the religion of the culture in addition to persecutions.
Church Growth – The Primitive Church Grew in Hostile Times
While the writers and directors of God’s Not Dead 2 want you to believe the church today is under attack, it isn’t. I would argue however that the the church today is facing a similar situation to the church of 1700 years ago – the church today is not operating in a culture that views the values of the church as it’s values. This is especially true in field of youth ministry.
Unless you are in the heart of the Bible belt, the church is operating outside of the glory days it once enjoyed. Church growth within the mainline denominations is stagnate at best. Clergy who are evaluated on their ability to grow a congregation are now in the position of trying maintain membership numbers that are at best level. There are pockets of light where growth is happening but the days of families moving to a new town and immediately seeking out a new church are gone. This is trickling down to youth ministry.
If you’re in youth ministry, how many times are you asked whether or not you’re growing? A youth ministry colleague lamented to me last week that he was frustrated because his congregation declined by 1% last year but still he was blasted by his church administrative council because the youth ministry only added 10 students to the ministry. Is there a double standard here?
The primitive church grew because of the Good News of Jesus Christ. They knew they would need the help of the Spirit to make this Christianity thing happen. Yet today, we often think for our churches and ministries to grow we need fancy new labels, initiatives, or shinny new buildings. Bishop Whitaker said this:
“persecution often had an effect on popular opinion about the Christians. The attitude of martyrs, especially young women, made a profound impression on many people. As Stephen Neil says in his A History of Christian Missions, ‘There are a number of well-authenticated cases of conversions of pagans in the very moment of witnessing the condemnation and death of Christians,’ and there must have been many more people who later became Christians as a result of witnessing a martyrdom”
The witness of the primitive church, in the face of persecution and martyrdom, led to conversion and growth. What if today, instead of claiming there is a war against God or that God isn’t welcome on college campuses (Really people? I know multiple campus pastors on “liberal” campuses who are growing ministries where some say Jesus isn’t welcome) perhaps the church today, and youth ministry specifically, can be a witness for the world. In this moment the Church has a chance to live out its calling to love the world and work to build God’s Kingdom. It is the living out of our faith that can help reverse the post-Christendom decline. Living out our faith can breathe new life by the Spirit into ministries that were once thought of as dead.
It’s true, God’s not dead, but was there ever really any question about that? If we live as a church with the knowledge that God was never dead to begin with than we can move forward living out a faith that is light in the world -a world that is in desperate need of hope, reconciliation, and love.
We can learn a lot from the primitive church – large denominations, local churches, and even youth ministries.
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