I read an interesting fact the other day in sociologist Rodney Stark’s book, The Rise of Christianity. Stark claims that Christianity’s 40 percent growth per decade during the first three centuries A.D. can be credited to the deep involvement of Christians in the fabric of their culture. He writes,
Christianity served as a revitalization movement that arose in response to the misery, chaos, fear and brutality of life in the urban Greco-Roman world…. Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of societal relationships able to cope with many urgent problems.
Stark then describes those problems Christians helped alleviate:
To cities filled with homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachment. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fire, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.
What they brought was not simply an urban movement, but a new culture capable of making life in Greco-Roman cities tolerable.
What a great model for Christians looking to serve their communities. But it’s not the only one.
In their book What If Jesus Had Never Been Born?, D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe detail the profound impact of Christianity upon the Western world. They write,
Christians, for distinctively Christian motives, have vastly influenced western culture in such areas as help for the poor, teaching of literacy, education for all, political freedom, economic freedom, science, medicine, the family, the arts, the sanctity of life.
Christians have also influenced the art world, as Nancy Pearcey details in Total Truth. She shows how the Bible is responsible for much of the language, literature, and fine arts we enjoy today. Christian artists and composers through the centuries have been heavily influenced by the Bible, and their work reflects its influence.
Then there is my favorite example, that of medieval Irish monks. In his book How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill tells how Christian monks in the middle ages moved out of Ireland and through pagan Europe. Along the way they invented and established academies, universities, and hospitals. The monks transformed local economies and cared for the unfortunate through these new institutions.
The monks’ goal was not to change the pagan culture into the church. Instead, their vocation was inspired by the gospel, and that changed the way they carried out their work. They worked for the flourishing of all mankind.
Christians today have a similar opportunity. Gabe Lyons captures the excitement of this opportunity well when he writes,
I can’t imagine anything more important or significant in our lifetime, than to be a part of the church recapturing its role in shaping culture. When we do this, the life-giving message of Jesus Christ will go forward in ways unprecedented throughout the 21st century.
If we are serious about the truth of Christianity, we need to engage in cultural renewal, working to serve the common good toward the furtherance of the kingdom and the glory of God.