Living in hard times — lessons from the early Christians…

Robert Louis Wilken

Pre-Christian.  Christian.   Post-Christian.  Roughly speaking, these categories outline the major changes in the history of the Western world.  We say “roughly speaking” because the West never became fully Christian.  And even now, it is not fully post-Christian.


But we are much farther along that path than when C. S. Lewis discussed these different historical eras in a speech at Cambridge University in 1954.  Lewis described the arrival of the present era as the “un-christening” of the West.  And he considered this second cultural revolution, moving us beyond Christian to post-Christian, to be more radical than the first.


Christians and Pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not.


Some fifty years after Lewis’s lecture, several of the same issues were addressed by Robert Louis Wilken in an interview with the editors of Christian History.  Dr. Wilken, who may well be our foremost living historian of the early Church, updates the process of cultural transformation this way:


In some ways … this culture is no longer our culture. It still has many Christian elements in it: the calendar (with major holidays like Christmas and Easter—though even they have been denuded), church architecture, choral music (much of which is Christian), art, and the like. But with the passing of each generation, the sensibility of the culture is less Christian.


Like the early Christians, Dr. Wilken continues, we have come to the very tangible experience of being a “distinct minority.”  Today, our situation is very similar to that of the early Church but with one important disadvantage.


[T]oday we in the West live in a post-Christian world, in an aggressive secular culture. This culture has known Christianity, and it is bitter toward Christianity; the culture is in revolt against what existed before.  Ancient paganism did not have that kind of bitterness. It was curious about Christianity, even incredulous.


Given the challenges of our cultural moment, the editors of Christian History asked, “What are some of the lessons we can learn from the early church about evangelizing our culture today?”  Dr. Wilken touched on several different areas in his response.


1.       Apologetics


A lot of early apologetics was not defense but simple explanation. In his First Apology, Justin Martyr gave an account of Christian worship. He also talked about baptism. He didn’t try only to establish a link to the larger culture or prove Christianity true. He also tried to tell people what Christians actually did in worship and what they believed.


Today I believe the most significant apologetic task is simply to tell people what we believe and do. We need to familiarize people with the stories in the Bible and to talk about the things that make Christianity distinctive. Many people are simply unaware of the basics of Christianity. They’re rejecting something they don’t know that much about.


But apologetics then and now has a limited role. We must speak what is true, but finally the appeal must be made to the heart, not the mind. We’re really leading people to change their love. To love something different. Love is what draws and holds people.


2.      Community


I think that should be a main strategy of Christians today—build strong communities.

The early church didn’t try to transform its culture by getting into arguments about whether the government should do this or that. As a small minority, it knew it would lose that battle; there were too many other forces at work. Instead it focused on building its own sense of community, and it let these communities be the leaven that would gradually transform culture. …


[The early church] built a way of life. The church was not something that spoke to its culture; it was itself a culture and created a new Christian culture. There were appointed times when the community came together. There was a distinctive calendar, and each year the community rehearsed key Christian beliefs at certain times. There was church-wide charity to the surrounding community. There was clarity, and church discipline, regarding moral issues. All these things made up a wholesome community.


3.      Strategy (the appropriateness of being “user-friendly”)


[When attending a Christian church, pagans] entered a wholly different world than they were used to. Furthermore, it was difficult to join the early church, besides the social and cultural hurdles: the process for becoming a member took two years. …


I think seeker-sensitive churches use a completely wrong strategy. A person who comes into a Christian church for the first time should feel out of place. He should feel this community engages in practices so important they take time to learn. The best thing we can do for “seekers” is to create an environment where newcomers feel they are missing something vital, that one has to be inculcated into this, and that it’s a discipline.



Dr. Robert Louis Wilken is professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, where he was William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of the History of Christianity. His writing includes over a dozen books, including Christians as the Romans Saw Them, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God and Remembering the Christian Past.


Roman Redux:  Evangelism in the Early Church” appeared in Issue 57 (1998) of Christian History.  This issue was devoted to evangelism in the early Church and is available online:  Converting the Empire:  How the Early Church Evangelized a Hostile Pagan World.”




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2 Responses to “Living in hard times — lessons from the early Christians…”

  1. Thanks for these thoughts. I made the observation to a friend a couple of years ago that the early church of the Bible probably looked more like the church in China does today, and that we do ourselves an injustice to think that we are the arbiters of the culture any longer. If we ever were such, we have abdicated that authority by doing just what the text here implies. The church has needed a new impetus for at east a generation now. The world needs the church to be its Christ-like servant, not its judge and critic.

    • Thanks, Darrell. Yes, the church has needed a new impetus for quite some time–several generations rather than just the one you suggest.