In 100 AD, 70 years after the resurrection, 30 years after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple – there were only 20-25,000 believers. For every living believer, an estimated one-to-two others had been martyred under Nero or Domitian. All the original twelve apostles were dead, as were Paul, Timothy and Titus, John Mark and Luke, Silas and Barnabas, along with James and Jude, brothers of Jesus
Yet in 50 years, the number of Christians would virtually double to 40,000.
- By 180 AD, the number first passed 100,000. Christians were then in all the provinces of the Empire, in 23 of the 31 largest cities.
- By 197 AD, every nation had a movement of Christianity, despite the blood of martyrs that still flowed.
- By 250, the number of Christians passed one million.
- In 310 AD, after another episode of severe persecution, there were 20 million globally, 10 million in the Empire (out of an empire population of 60 million, a ratio of 1:6, 14% of the Empire’s population). Unbelievable!
- All this was after 10 imperial persecutions, each of which destroyed bishops, key leaders and pastors, their best minds and their most stalwart examples. In a sea of paganism, with a faith that was illegal and worship that took place in secret, they grew – until the empire capitulated! Foreign armies were no match for Rome’s power, but this group of roaring lambs toppled the Empire.
With no buildings or budget, with few resources and virtually no favor from political powers, and with only a handful of formally untrained followers – the world was changed.
Can it happen again? If so, how?
These ordinary Christians fellowshipped with fire, and in the daily flow of their lives, they carried the gospel wherever they lived and worked. They were a leaven of godly influence. Merchants and domestics. Buyers and traders. The wealthy and peasants. Artists and physicians. Slaves and prisoners. In Christ, these socially and ethnically diverse followers of Christ found common ground – they were made one, a family, by the Spirit. And they were made to the world around them, salt and light.
In cities without churches, they organized Christian cells, two or three gathered ‘in His name.’ Jesus, known to them and revealed through them by the Spirit, transcended all their other differences. The commonality found in him was more compelling than any connection with and in the world – social, linguistic, economic, familial. In these informal prayer circles, they urged one another to be missional, to boldly, but discreetly share their faith, to not be silent. This often cost them their jobs, status, and at times, their lives. Nevertheless, the cells became centers of mission, and evolved, with new converts into churches, and the churches changed cities.
Note the order: Prayer – mission – then the church. Praying people: missional people; praying churches: missional churches. We begin with churches, attempt to motivate our constituents to pray, and engage in mission. The New Testament order and that of the apostolic church places mission first, subordinated only to prayer – and corporate prayer gives birth to the church. This was the experience of early Pentecostals. Cottage prayer meetings ministered to neighbors who did not attend a church, and the prayer meeting, in a missional mode, gave back to a church.
Our future is in our past. It is in recovering the DNA of prayer at the intersection of mission. We must insist on deep dependence on God in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, on fresh fire in our bellies that propels us to the next town and to the next generation.
Antioch, the missionary staging point of the apostolic church, was an ethnic collage. This was the template – not Jewish Jerusalem that had difficulty integrating Gentiles.
Azusa Street, as well, was a collage of blacks and whites, rich and poor, notables and nobodies. “The color-line has been washed away,” they would exclaim. Los Angeles’ elites came out of curiosity, as did their throwaways. In one season, three daily services flowed one into another virtually around the clock. The little building emptied and filled up again and what was essentially a prayer service continued – assaulting heaven in behalf of a divine invasion. And God heard – and the echo continues around the world.
William Seymour, black, with one eye, became the pastor of a prayer meeting that gave birth to a global missional movement. He humbly led the meetings, his head often buried in a pair of orange crates, one stacked on top of another. He had some Bible school education – but it was from outside of the classroom. He was not allowed to sit inside due to the color of his skin. Arriving in LA to pastor, he was quickly locked out of the church he came to serve. The rejections, the humiliation, the lack of honor was not something he allowed to spoil his soul. He apparently refused offense – and he also refused to offend, opening the Azusa Street meetings to all. There would have been no Azusa, no lasting change, no shining example of reconciliation and grace, had Seymour allowed racial pride to warp his soul. By grace, he became invincible to wounds that would have destroyed others and the movement. Tough and tender, in retrospect, he now looms larger than life. Transcending race, he modeled for us not merely racial reconciliation, but spiritual reconciliation. And that is found only in Christ, scripted in our hearts by the Spirit. It is not merely an attitude or relationship adjustment, but a completely new way to see the world.
This article is the essence of a multi-tribe address delivered at the PCCNA 25th Anniversary in Memphis in 2019. It is intended for the audience of Pentecostal tribal leaders. Hopefully, it will be informative to all who read it.
<Check back next week for more excerpts from this article.>
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