I am continually amazed at the fact that many (if not most) American churches emulate the ancient pagan religions in one regard: we neglect mission.

The only way the minuscule percentage of churches that see people come to faith makes sense is if outreach, mission and evangelism are rarities in those churches.

In this regard many American churches resemble ancient pagan religions.

Magical book Kircherian Terme

Proselytism rare in paganism

The early Church’s missional impulse was novel. Paul’s endeavors are remarkable in themselves, especially in light of the fact that “missionaries” were unknown in the Classical world.

Kenneth W. Harl, in Lecture 7 of his series “The Fall of Paganism and the Origin of Medieval Christianity” explains the novelty of “missionaries.”

Paul, who in many ways is one of Christianity’s first converts, was also the first missionary. We take the idea of proselytizing for granted, but it was a new concept in the Roman world. In the pagan traditions, despite scholars’ efforts to find proselytizing by the mystery cults, it is not present. Missionary activities are something that belong to Paul.1

Martin Goodman concurs with the tart observation that Paul’s mission were “a shocking novelty”2 He offers a fascinating insight: aggressive mission cannot arise from a polytheistic religion because it cannot have a concept of “exclusivity”. No pagan cult claimed to supersede or replace another.

The ancients did not believein the gods (as we think of faith) so much as adhere to the local standards of conduct established by the local god’s devotees. People did not convert from cult to cult, they merely moved from one locale to another.

Ancient pagans made pilgrimmages to holy places, temples and shrines to offer obeisance and receive oracles. None sent representatives to make proselytes.

Mission in ancient Judaism?

A brief survey of the literature on ancient Judaism’s missional impetus quickly reveals a morass from which the debating scholars have yet to extricate themselves.

Goodman, for example, marshals an argument that Jews in the Hellenistic world were accepting of gentile paganism. McKnight, working with a restrictive definition of mission, concurs.3 Dickson counters that McKnight and Goodman assume what they would prove in their definition of mission.4 He offers a strong case that “some forms of Judaism…expressed various types of missionary commitment”.5

This is an interesting argument for the history geeks among us (I suffer a slight case, I must admit) but somewhat beside the point. No matter how we test the evidence about ancient Judaism’s missional impulse, it remains true that the first century Church’s missional explosion across Syria, Turkey, North Africa and the Mediterranean was unprecedented in the ancient world.

Lack of missional impulse in American churches

It’s not likely that you’ve missed the last ten years’ discussion and occasionally heated debate about the missional movement (a sort of low grade fever that complains about the Church Growth movement while embracing similar goals).

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, absorbed in Fantasy Football, demonstrating for an immigration fast track or been gathering up your pitchforks and firebrands to storm the White House.

In the end I guess it doesn’t matter much to me. House church? Fine. Attractional church? Well, I suppose so. Organic church? Sure, that’s okay. Missional church? File under D for “Duh!”

The fact remains that after hundreds of books, thousands of articles, decades of research and endless debate one thing is largely unchanged:

The American church approaches evangelism, mission and outreach pretty much the way the ancient pagan religions approached it: stunned bewilderment

Question

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Notes

  1. Kenneth W. Harl, “The Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity”, Lecture 7. See page 59 in the accompanying course guide, available online http://anon.eastbaymediac.m7z.net/anon.eastbaymediac.m7z.net/teachingco/CourseGuideBooks/DG3466_4F4EF.PDF. Accessed 10/27/2013. â†©
  2. Martin Goodman, “Mission and Conversion: Proselytizing in the Religious History of the Roman Empire” (Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 105. â†©
  3. S. A. McKnight, “A Light Among the Gentiles: Jewish Missionary Activity in the Second Temple Period” (Fortress Press, 1991). â†©
  4. John P. Dickson, Mission-Commitment in Ancient Judaism and in the Pauline Communities: The Shape, Extent and Background of Early Christian Mission (Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen Zum Neuen Testament 2, 159; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003). â†©
  5. Dickson, p. 49. â†©