3 Early Church Lessons for the Modern Church

By Derwin Gray

Old ChurchHow did 120 Jewish followers in the first century turn into a multi-ethnic movement of over 33 million followers by 350 AD?

Immediately we know they preached the Gospel under the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a given.  Sociologist and comparative religion professor, Dr. Rodney Stark in His book, The Rise of Christianity, outlines three things the early church did to bring about the greatest movement planet earth has ever seen.

I propose that as America becomes more post-Christian, the 3 things the early church did, are 3 things the church in America must do as well.


Plagues in the first and second century had catastrophic effects on the western world. Marcus Aurelius, Roman Empire from AD 161 to 180, said, “So many people died that cities and villages in Italy and in the provinces were abandoned and fell into ruin.”  (Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 76.)

Dionysius, the Bishop of Alexandria, wrote about how the Christian community embodied the Gospel by nursing the sick, and even the dying, while the pagans abandoned the sick.  He noted that the pagans “throw their sick into the roads before they were dead and treated their unburied corpses as dirt.” (Stark, 83).

Church planter/pastor, do you have a strategy to care for the sick and poor?

Church may we, unleash unprecedented love on the sick and poor like the early church. (Matthew 25:35-40).


In Athens, women were classified as children, regardless of age, and were the legal property of men.  Men could divorce their wives by simply ordering a wife out of the home.  (Stark, 102).  If a woman was raped, her husband was legally compelled to divorce her!  (Stark, 102).

Worst all, female babies were often killed. In the Greco-Roman world, “families rarely ever had more than one daughter.”  (Stark, 97).

Women responded to Gospel in droves because they heard for the first time that they were made in the image of God and that they were equal to men.  (Stark, 100).

They were amazed to hear that a husband was to love his wife as Jesus loved the church (Eph. 5:25). They were amazed to know that Jesus could use them in positions of leadership in His church, like the deaconess Phoebe (Romans 16:1-2).

Church planter/pastor, do you have a strategy to unleash the leadership capacity of the women of the congregation you lead.

Church may we display to women in our culture that Jesus dresses them in honor and crowns them with dignity.


Greco-Roman cities were very ethnically diverse and therefore fractured into numerous ethnic tribes (Stark, 157). Case in point is the city of Antioch. When it was founded by Seleucus I, the city was laid out in two primary sections – one for the Syrians and one for the Greeks. These sections were walled off from one another (Stark, 157).

During days of Roman rule, Antioch was divided into 18 different ethnic groups. As a result of this ethnic diversity, social integration was very difficult.  It is also one of the reasons Roman cities were prone to riots.  (Stark, 158).

However, it was in the city of Antioch that Jesus’ followers were first called Christians (Acts 11:19-26).  It was in Antioch that Jesus’ church transformed from a homogenous group of Jews into a local, multi-ethnic church comprised of Jews and non-Jews (African, Arab, Greeks, Romans, Syrians, Asians, etc.).  And it was the multi-ethnic, local church in Antioch that took the Gospel of Jesus Christ around the world, not the homogenous church in Jerusalem (Acts 13:1-3).

The Greco-Romans stood in awe as they saw people who hated each other began to love each other and do life together in the Name of Jesus (Ephesians 2:14-16).

One of the dominant themes in the Apostle Paul letters  is how the Gospel breaks down ethnic barriers to create one new people in Christ who are to live out the Kingdom of God by loving one another (Gal. 3:24-28; Eph. 2:14-16; 3:1-13, Romans 1:15; 15:16, 1 Cor. 9:19-23, Col. 1:27; 3:11-15).

Church planter/pastor, do you have a plan to cultivate a multi-ethnic congregation if the demographics are possible? Currently only 13% of local churches in America are multi-ethnic.  Sadly, the most segregated time in America is Sunday morning’s at 11:00am.

Church, may we have congregations that will reflect the new heaven and new earth. (Rev. 5:9)

photo credit: szeke

Derwin Gray

Derwin L. Gray is the founding and Lead Pastor of Transformation Church, a multi-ethnic, multi-generational, mission-shaped community that loves God completely (Upward), ourselves correctly (Inward), and our neighbors compassionately (Outward) in Indian Land, South Carolina, just south of Charlotte, North Carolina. Transformation Church was recently recognized as one of the fastest growing churches in America for 2010 by Outreach Magazine.

Gray met his wife, Vicki, at BYU and has been married for 19 years. They have two children, Presley and Jeremiah. After graduating from Brigham Young University, he played professional football in the NFL for five years with the Indianapolis Colts (1993-1997) and one year with the Carolina Panthers (1998). Gray is the author of Hero: Unleashing God’s Power in a Man’s Heart (Summerside Press, 2009) and is a highly sought-after communicator. He’s also recognized by many as the Evangelism Linebacker. He’s had the honor of teaching in a variety of settings including Billy Graham Evangelistic Association events, the Billy Graham School of Evangelism, Exponential Conference, Simply Youth Ministry Conference, Greg Stier’s Dare 2 Share Ministries, Tommy Nelson Song of Solomon For Students Conferences and at universities and conferences around the country.