Epidemics and Christianity
This is not our first rodeo. In 165 AD the Greco-Roman world faced an epidemic that wiped out roughly 25% of its population. The church flourished during this crisis and, in particular, in the years that followed. In his must-read book, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (Harper-Collings: 1996) Rodney Stark convincingly locates the church’s response during these times of crisis as essential factors in its significant growth. I believe its response can be a timely message to the modern church as we face the current rising pandemic.
Stark suggests three primary factors in this regard (he devotes an entire chapter entitled “Epidemics, Networks and Conversion”):
1. The Church offered an alternative and compelling narrative to its world. The primary cultural and existential narratives of the 1st Century Greco-Roman world were quickly viewed as bankrupt in the face of their crippling epidemic. The church was able to offer up an alternative narrative that brought hope to despair and answers to the most fundamental questions of humanity.
2. Christians had better survival rates. Perhaps this was a result of divine intervention but certainly was aided by stronger immunity built up because Christians were quick to help those who were sick and in need. The heightened survival rates, along with their engagement in service drew the awe, admiration and attraction of their observing world.
3. The aftermath of the epidemic, with increased resulting connections between the church and her surrounding communities provided significant pathways towards church growth and the advancement of the Gospel.
Perhaps the most simple way we can respond in this time is to walk across the street to our neighbour’s home, ring the doorbell and say, “I know I should have introduced myself years ago, however if you need to self-quarantine, please view me as someone who can bring to you that what you need…here is my cell number."
This is not our first rodeo. May one day our generation be describe in a similar light.