loren Eric Swanson: More Responses to Jim Collins' Provocative Parable

Monday, January 02, 2006

More Responses to Jim Collins' Provocative Parable

This is a continuation of Bob Buford's Active Energy newsletter (www.activeenergy.net)

Happy New Year! I begin 2006 with a sense that something big is going on - that we are at one of those watersheds in history. The year 2005 provided a transition for me and for the Life II work I do through and alongside Leadership Network.

As my friend Robert Lewis says, "It feels like there's a tsunami under the churches right now." George Barna calls it a "Revolution" in his latest book of the same name (an important read - go straight to Amazon.com - Revolution). The ever-young Frances Hesselbein told me over dinner in New York that "Peter Drucker is more relevant than ever. Peter illumines the darkness of our time." Uncertainty abounds. A turning point? Makes me anxious to get back into the game!
Now back to the tsunami of responses I've gotten from so many in response to Jim Collins' challenge to "connect the dots" to explain what happened in the 300 years between the crucifixion of Christ and the time when Constantine made Christianity the established religion of the Roman Empire. As Collins put it, "What were the social mechanisms and organizational tools that allowed this statistically remote outcome to happen?"

Three very enlightening responses:
From Dallas Willard, mega author (The Divine Conspiracy, The Spirit of the Disciplines), Professor at the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California.
"Frank Laubach remarked that 'The simple program of Christ for winning the whole world is to make each person he touches magnetic enough with love to draw others.' It actually is not a secret how the spread of Christianity worked. See the opening chapters of E. Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages, for a lot of further references. Those brought under the influence of Jesus Christ simply manifested a quality of intellect and love that had never been seen on earth. It spread for basically the same reason Palm Pilots spread. The trouble is that, for one asking Jim's question today, they think of what they know of as Christianity and, for various reasons, good and bad, can't understand how THAT would spread simply because people found it so great, good, and helpful. Just like you would never be able to understand how Methodists, Salvationist, etc. could have ever spread, given what they are now. Jesus is the bright center. He trained a few people to do what he did. (See Luke 10:1-24 with the eyes of someone who knows what it is to bring out a new "product.") And then he told them exactly how to replicate across the known world, in Matt. 28:18-20. The problem today is that we have an ersatz product occupying the ground, and so these passages just look like more religious mumbo-jumbo. You have to devote the time, energy, and intellect to scrape the barnacles off the old ship and get down to the human and divine reality Jesus was talking about it. Then you will realize why Paul and the others were able to have the impact they did. They were only the tip of a spiritual iceberg moving upon the soul of humanity."
From Reggie McNeal, another prolific author. The Present/Future Church is stirring up conversation all around the country. It is part of Leadership Network's series with Jossey Bass.
"Here's my response to Jim's inquiry as to Christianity's appeal and early widespread adoption:
The Paradox of Service. Up until Jesus, religious pursuit had primarily aimed at pleasing (or appeasing) God and/or personal dimensions of the adherent's development (salvation, advancement in the religion, etc.). Jesus added an astonishing dimension to spiritual pursuits - the service of others. In fact, He identified serving others as the path to greatness (Mark 9:33-37 and 10:35-45). The seriousness of this instruction is seen when Jesus was challenged to prioritize the commandments (the Pharisees had developed over 600!). His response was to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We widely accept today that our spirituality shows up in our service to others, but this was a radical idea introduced by Jesus. Not only did this emphasis brand the new belief system as distinctive, its demonstration in the lives of early believers gained a hearing for the gospel. Along the way, in this life of serving others, the followers of Jesus discovered an important thing happened to them. In dying, they experienced life.
Collapse of institutional religion. All the old gods were dead. Roman and Greek pantheons were not populated by living beings. The Roman emperor was not a likely god candidate for most people. First-century Judaism (run largely by Pharisees) was a religion of dead legalism. Jesus did not establish a religion. That came later (and is currently collapsing all over the world).
Heightened spiritual awareness. Against the backdrop of the demise of organized religion was a heightened search for personal spiritual development. This is why Gnosticism and the "mystery" religions were such keen competitors for Christianity in the first century. They offered adherents personal salvation (based on spiritual insight and moral personal lifestyle choices). Jesus talked about personal relationship with God, an astonishing possibility not offered by institutional brands. And He talked about righteous living that showed up in how we treat people, not in keeping some religious code. He appealed to the personal search for meaning and significance.
Globalism. Alexander had given the world the Internet with the Greek language. The Romans had established enough international security to build transcontinental roadways and gather the population into cities. The gospel fanned out along the backbone of this economic and information infrastructure. The first century was the first time in human history that the coming of Jesus could become more than a localized event."
From Eric Swanson, who heads the Externally Focused Church Leadership Community for Leadership Network.
"Rodney Stark is the expert on this period. He notes that there were at least two great plagues in the first three centuries (160 and 250 AD) that actually were instrumental in the nascent church's incredible growth rate, which he estimates at 40 percent per decade. When the plagues came, those who were able fled the city, but not the Christians. They stayed and ministered to the sick and dying - Christians and non-Christians alike. Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria, writing of how believers responded to the plague of 250 observes:
'Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.. The best of brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning height commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.' (At the height of the second great epidemic, around 260, in the Easter letter from Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria. In some cities, two-thirds of the population died. At the height of the plague of 251 AD, 5,000 people a day were dying in Rome.)
Writing of the response of those who were not followers of Christ, Dionysius continues.
"The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt."
Stark observes that just giving basic care of food and water to those too weak to care for themselves would greatly reduce the mortality rate of the victims. He estimates that 80 percent of Christians survived the plagues compared to only 25-50 percent of the general population.
Most churches today have withdrawn from their communities and lost the skill of being a part of the life and conversation of the community. Whether churches feel like they were run out of town or they willingly withdrew, most churches are on the fringes of the community they seek to impact. Occasionally, they make a foray into the city for some search and rescue work, but by and large they are isolated from their community. When charged that the early Christians were infuructuosi in negotiis ("of no use in practical affairs"), Tertullian answered,
'How so? How can that be when such people dwell beside you, sharing your way of life, your dress, your habits and the same needs of life? We are no Brahmins or Indian gymnosophists, dwelling in woods and exiled from life.we stay beside you in this world, making use of the forum, the provision-market, the bath, the booth, the workshop, the inn, the weekly market, and all other places of commerce. We sail with you, fight at your side, till the soil with you, and traffic with you; we likewise join our technical skill to that of others, and make our works public property for your use.'"
My Summary:
I promised to give you my own reaction, which I can do in four words:


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