Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome

by Rodney Stark

For centuries, cities have been on the receiving end of a disproportionately small part of mission endeavors, but readers of Rodney Stark’s latest book may have to reconsider the wisdom of this imbalance.

HarperSanFrancisco,353 Sacramento St., Suite 500, San Francisco, CA 94111, 2006, 288 pages, $24.95.

Reviewed by Paul Salem, church planter among Muslims in Southeast Asia.

For centuries, cities have been on the receiving end of a disproportionately small part of mission endeavors, but readers of Rodney Stark’s latest book may have to reconsider the wisdom of this imbalance. In Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome, Stark’s sociological look at Christianity in the first few centuries after Christ’s death concludes that the movement was primarily urban. He has brought the tools and perspectives of sociology to bear on history, particularly religious history.

Stark revisits the familiar territory of Christianity’s initial centuries. This approachable read appeals to a broad audience while specifically challenging contemporary historical methods. A refreshing, no-nonsense approach is used to explore the growth of Christianity as an urban movement. Building on the premise that quantitative methods are invaluable for historical scholarship, Stark examines a number of hypotheses related to religious movements and applies them to thirty-one urban centers of the Roman Empire.

Stark takes a look at the largest cities of the empire and the flow of Christianity, as well as the movement of other religions into those cities. This approach unveils some interesting findings regarding the prerequisite spiritual climate most conducive to the establishment of an urban church.

For obvious reasons, this book holds intrigue for missiology. Stark challenges several missiological assumptions and validates others. Controversially, he claims that Paul was not a decisive factor in reaching the large urban centers. He does not discount Paul’s importance, but considers the label “apostle to the gentiles” a stretch. Stark, as a sociologist, argues that conversion occurs more as a result of relationship than doctrine. Doctrine takes on greater importance during discipleship.

While this book is a worthy read, Stark fails to consider the question of how a church can move from being only one to multiplying within a city. There are many cities in the Muslim world that have had one or two churches for decades, yet these cities remain unreached.

Cities of God does, however, shine as a wonderful apologetic for quantifiable history. It has become popular to discredit orthodox Christianity and paint Gnosticism and paganism as more virtuous. Stark deftly addresses these notions with feisty charm. Even though the book did not address everything a missiologist would be curious about, there are some missiological nuggets to be gleaned.

Check these titles:
Stark, Rodney. 1996. The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries. San Francisco, Calif.: Harper San Francisco.

Allen, Roland. 1962. Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Meeks, Wayne. 1983. The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

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