According to Rodney Stark, they all influenced the dramatic spread of Christianity over the first three centuries of its growth. Stark’s primary shtick is to interpolate between sparse historical and textual data from the early years of the church by appealing to contemporary sociologicalmodels. In The Rise of Christianity he offers many convincing arguments about the social conditions that lead to the eventual supplanting of Paganism by Christianity. He argues that Church growth was arithmetic, at a rate of about 40% per decade for the first 250 years, well before Constantine. This fits the data, but leaves a glaring question: How did a tiny Jewish sect in a crowded, pluralistic, antagonistic religious landscape grow at such a rate. He offers dozens of explanations, but I think several have interesting application to our own time. So I will summarize and comment on three:
1. Christians Fearlessness of Death Increased their Survival Rate, Social Connections and Community Respect in the Wake of Two Plagues
Stark’s most famous argument, and the one that attracted me to his work is that the plagues were central to how Christianity emerged as the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. He describes the plagues of 165 and 251 which each wiped out a quarter to a third of the empire. He begins his argument by suggesting that, philosophically, “Christianity offered a much more satisfactory account of why these terrible times had fallen on humanity.” But the heart of his argument is that the fearless abandon with which Christians risked their lives to care for others also made the plagues more survivable for themselves and the Pagans with social attachments to the Christian community. He cites Cyprian to convey the basic Christian attitude to the Plagues:
“Plagues and pestilence…searches out the justice and every one and examines the minds of the human race; whether the well care for the sick…Although this mortality has contributed nothing else…we are learning not to fear death.”
“Many in nursing and curing others, have transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…The heathen behaved the opposite way…they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead.”
These sympathetic testimonies are collaborated by official documents and unsympathetic authors which lead Stark to the conclusion that at great risk, Christians provided basic nursing care and burial to the infected. This seems like quaint martyrdom until one realizes:
“Modern medical experts believe that conscientious nursing without any medications could cut the mortality rate (during a plague) by two thirds or even more.” So in the face of the most devastating disasters of the early life of the Church, Christianity proved not only intellectually satisfying, but efficacious. Christianity, ‘grew’ enormously because the population of Christians ‘shrunk’ much less. But this basic nursing care, not only improved the rate of Christian survival but the survival of Pagans that had Christian social networks and Pagans who owed their life to Christian theology.  So, Stark suggests, there were probably significant conversion rates among the surviving pagans.
Reflections on Contemporary Relevance: It seems like the contemporary application of these events was that Christian theology made the early Christians less vested in this life and generated an abandon for service of each other and outsiders. Christianity was evaluated as efficacious because it had empirical, pragmatic value. This strikes me as the only kind of Christianity moderns and post-moderns would ever consider.
2. The Church was a Place Women Could Thrive
Stark opens chapter 5 with the statement “Amidst contemporary denunciations of Christianity as patriarchal and sexist, it is easily forgotten that the early church was…especially attractive to women.” He reports that men greatly outnumbered women in the Greco-Roman world. There were between 130 and 140 men to every 100 women, sex ratios that can only occur when there is ‘some tampering with human life.’
“And tampering there was. Exposure of unwanted female infants and deformed male infants was legal, morally accepted, and widely practiced…even in large families more than one daughter was practically never reared.”
Additionally, abortion was prevalent and dangerous in the Roman Empire. The two primary modes of abortion (taking a just-short-of-lethal dose of poison and surgery) both had very high mother mortality rates. On top of that "in perhaps the majority of cases it was the men, rather than the women, who made the decision to abort.” It is not hard to see how, at least in this context, the Church’s early and adamant opposition to infanticide and abortion was decidedly pro-woman.
As non-abortive birth control goes, there were two primary kinds: remunerated extramarital sex and intramarital anal sex. I don’t suppose it is difficult to imagine that the Church’s prohibition of these was also seen in a positive light by women of the Roman Empire.
Finally, the Church’s ideological commitment to the powerless led them to support widows in a culture that did not. Bishop Fabious wrote that in 251, the church of ~30,000 people in Antioch, was financially supporting ‘more than 1,500 widows and distressed persons.’
So, from conception to grave, the Church protected women, but it also honored them. Christian women married at a much later age, had much greater marital security and equity and held positions of leadership, responsibility and honor. In all, as a place that protected and honored women, the church inverted the cultural sex-ratio putting the Christian birth rate well above the Pagan rate.
Reflections on Contemporary Relevance:The Church’s mandate to honor the unborn and the elderly goes all the way back. But, I think we need to earn our right to speak on this as they did. The early church was a place of social safety nets. Part of a robust opposition to abortion would be church sponsored day care so teen mothers could go to college and pulpits that pushed foster care and adoption as hard as they decried abortion.
With respect to female leadership in the church, I do not believe in a ‘trajectory hermeneutic’ but it does seem to me that the church was founded as a place that acknowledged the fundamental and equal humanness of woman, and was a place they could thrive, serve and lead. We are each bound by our exegetical consciences, but I think the early church sets a provocative example for us.
Finally, a lot has been said about church demographics leaning and even marketing towards mostly women.  But Stark made me think of it in a different way. He leveraged sociological theories to demonstrate that strong sex imbalance in a religious grouping demonstrates that the dominant group is finding more benefit. In that sense, even the contemporary church, with all our accusations of misogyny and sexism, seems to be EMPIRICALLY pro-woman.
3. The Church Embraced the City
Stark, with others asserts that Christianity was, from the beginning an URBAN movement. Stark estimated the population density of Antioch at 195 persons per acre. Compare this to 100 for Manhattan, 122 for Calcutta and 183 for Bombay…but with many fewer vertical floors.
‘Parker (1967) doubted that people could actually spend much time in quarters so cramped and squalid. Thus he concluded that the typical residents of Greco-Roman cities spent their lives mainly in public places.”
Part of the reason for such high population density in the residential areas is that 30-50% of the city area was dedicated to public space. So urban Romans lived their lives in common, public spaces. The common use of public spaces increased the number and density of social networks and kept Christianity ‘open’:
“The basis for successful conversionist movements is growth through social networks, through a structure of direct and interpersonal attachments. Most new religious movements fail because they quickly become closed, or semiclosed networks. That is, they fail to keep forming and sustaining attachments to outsiders and thereby lose the capacity to grow. Successful movements discover techniques for remaining open networks, able to reach out into new adjacent social networks.”
It was, in part, the willingness of Christians to live in cities and be participate publicly in the common spaces and objectives of corporate urban life that facilitated the dramatic growth of the church.
Reflections on Contemporary Relevance: Tim Keller uses Stark (as well as Wayne Meeks, author of The First Urban Christians) pretty heavily to demonstrate that the missiology of the early church was to concentrate their efforts on the cities because ‘as the city goes so goes the culture.’ This actually sets up one of my favorite Keller quotes: “American Christians are the most anti-urban Christians in the world and as a result American cities are the most underserved by Christians. (It would take) 10% of evangelical Christians in this country to move into cities to live proportionally…Jews for example, gay people for example, Asian people, Black and Hispanic people all live disproportionately in cities, and as a result the have a lot more cultural power, and they deserve it, because there they are, than white evangelicals that don’t want to live there…I remember Jim Boice said ‘until evangelicals are willing to live in the city they can stop bellyaching about what’s going wrong with the culture.”
The Church does not thrive in contemporary suburban culture where houses are super comfortable and little time is spent in public spaces. Contemporary Christians could take an important lesson from the early church to live life in urban (and academic) population concentrations with dynamic public spaces where they can live and serve side-by-side with Christians and the city’s other inhabitants. Christianity dies huddled in McMasions with the family in front of the television and/or shuttled cautiously from one Christian function to another. As the exiled Hebrews in Babylon we are to vest in our cities, love them, serve them and represent the gospel.
This post was prepared while listening to: ‘Plans’ by Death Cab for Cutie.
 As evidence of the possibility of this kind of arithmetic growth he tells us that the Mormons have been growing at a rate of 43% per decade for the last century.
 In fact, Stark convincingly argues that Constantine’s edict did not make Christianity the dominant religion of the Roman empire…instead his edict acknowledged a well established phenomena. “Constantine’s conversion would better be seen as a response to the massive exponential wave in progress (of the Church), not its cause.” (p10)
 I first heard about this work in William Dyrness Apologetics Class materials (available from Fuller with or without taking the class). Years later, Keller cited the work as well.
 Both before Constantinian adoption but after the last of the eye witnesses.
 Interestingly, this whole thing reminds me of my famous work of existentialist fiction (if, we exclude Dostoyevsky as a proto-existentialist), ‘The Plague’ by Camus. Curiously, the roles are switched in ‘The Plague.’ The Camus type characters provide care with abandon to their own safety while the Christian seems fearful.
 If you suspect that I included this quote just so I could make the ‘not dead yet’ reference from Monty Python…well, you might be right.
 The sublime paradox here is that the more reckless and fearless approach resulted in lower mortality.
 Pontiaus writes “there is nothing remarkable in cherishing merely our own people with the due attentions of love, but that one might become perfect who should do more than the heathen (and)…love his enemies.”
 Stark’s sociology of religion rests largely on the idea that since the benefits of religious belief are uncertain, our sociological response resolves around reducing the perceived risk and uncertainty of commitments.
 This last conclusion was reached by examining 600 family lists and finding only 6 with more than one daughter.
 I don’t mean to be inflammatory, but the difference between abortion (particularly late term) and infanticide always struck me as a quantitative rather than a qualitative difference. Peter Singer (the Princeton utilitarian philosopher) famously believes the same thing…but it leads him to embrace infanticide. At least it is a consistent position. I remember the first time I heard about contemporary infanticide in India and China…I was in a developing world class in undergrad, and the whole class was horrified. But many of these same people would believe that easy access to abortion should be part of the statagy to curtail world population.
 This was a very memorable part of the book.
 In the early to mid-twenties as opposed to Pagan marriages that tended to happen in a woman’s mid to EARLY teens.
 Stark surveys numerous references to women as deacons…and none to women as elders…but this is still an enormous move towards equity for the time.
 Though the vast majority of it is overstated.
 Anyone who knows me knows I love Facebook. I have heard several times that the most people that one person can know is about 120, which is why so many churches max out at 120, because they are pastor driven and that is how many he can know. I honestly believe that social networking sites like Facebook can almost double that number by optimizing the transfer of event based information transfer. In a sense, it is digital public space…but it does not replace the value of utilizing physical public space.
 In much worse health and safety conditions as even the worst contemporary cities.