One of the amazing stats of Church history is that in the year 100 AD there was approximately 25,000 Christians in the Roman world. Only a couple of centuries late in the year 310 AD there was approximately 20,000,000 Christians. This statistic is often used today by all kinds of organizations and churches as an inspiration for how the church can grow.
However there are a few crucial differences between the early church and the context that we find ourselves in today. I want to explore just one of these. That is the concept of Relational Depth and Relational Breadth.
Relational Breadth is basically the amount of people that you know. In his book The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell notes that if you want to spread an idea or create a movement, it is essential to have a wide group of acquaintances to whom you can share you ideas with. One of the key factors in allowing people to have relational breadth is technology and security. The early church existed in a time of great technological advance, the Roman road and system of governance made travel relatively safe and quick, the common languages of Latin and Greek made communications across ethnic groups possible. Once Rome began to wain and the Dark ages set in, the gospel not only slowed down in its movement, but it actually retreated with many former Roman subjects returning to paganism.
Today globalization and technology offers us tremendous opportunities for relational breadth. You can become facebook friends with someone you have never met in Iran and begin chatting to them online, exchanging photos and stories. Soon the biggest speaking English country in the world will be India, Chinese and Spanish are spoken across the globe in all kinds of environments. Jet travel acts like a modern day Roman road, allowing people to quickly traverse the globe.
However what the early church had that we don’t have is relational depth. Being one of the great trading races, many cities in the Roman Empire had a Jewish minority, complete with Synagogues and neighbourhoods. After the destruction of the temple in 70 AD Jewish refugees poured out of Israel and into the Roman world. If you were a Jewish Christian and you wanted to share the gospel, you could pretty much point to a Mediterranean city on a map and be able to find an uncle, cousin or someone from your old neighbourhood to go and stay with.
You would be able to rock up at your third cousins house and thanks to middle eastern hospitality traditions be taken in as a long lost son, be fed, and live with your Jewish kinfolk. You had deep coventantal commitments to your relatives and fellow Jews. The kind of social commitment that is rarely seen today.
Now the thing to remember was that most city dwellers lived in Roman apartments which were extremely cramped, the rooms had little or no ventilation and were dark and dank. So most people in apartments hung out in the courtyard, you literally lived in your family and neighbours pockets. So you could not hide your behaviour. People saw how you were at your best and your worst, they saw how you treated to business partners, your spouse and your kids, if you were a spiritual fraud you would be spotted in seconds. This was relational depth, you lived in deep community with people even if you were just passing through town. Thus when Christians arrived their witness was on display for everyone to see. Their example shone out.
However today with our tremendous relational breadth, we have little relational depth. Sure you might be able become friends with someone in Iran, and talk chat online with them about your favourite album; but you have no idea what they get up to in their real life. They could sell crack cocaine from a school bus for all you know. We move jobs today often, we move homes, we even move cities, many rarely see family, we don’t even know the names of the people in our street. This creates tough turf for the growth of the gospel.
In order for the gospel to grow again, we need to match the breadth of our relationship, with depth of relationships. In our facebook world where it is possible to have a thousand friends on your page, but still sit at home lonely. Part of our kingdom mandate is to go deeper with people, to again create depth of relationship, the growth of the gospel depends on it.