The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark follows the thesis that Christianity's growth can be explained through the social situation surrounding it. Stark is a sociologist, mostly concerned with religion, but not a historian or New Testament scholar (xii). This book reflects his area of expertise. Rather than taking the tradition approach of looking at the early Church through the New Testament canon and extra biblical sources, Stark seeks to explain its growth through modern sociological findings and theories. He does this by comparing recent studies on the development of religions and applying them to the historical accounts of the Christian church. "That is, by resorting to simple arithmetic I believe I have demonstrated adequately that the rise of Christianity required no miraculous rates of conversion" (12).
Stark makes his argument by explaining the various circumstances surrounding the early Church. First, he deals with fact that Christianity was not a proletarian movement. This is never the case with cults. Rather, it could be argued that "the lower classes were disproportionately under-represented in the early church" (32). Second, the author looks at the relationship between the Jews and the Christians. Recognizing that a displaced ethnic or religious group will often seek the lesser of two evils in becoming like those around them, Christianity presented a viable option for the Hellenized Jews.
A third reality of the age in which Christianity was born was the presence of epidemics and natural disasters. Christianity continued past the devastation of the catastrophes while Paganism crumbled because they were able to confront these crises socially and spiritually (94). Because of their beliefs, Christians helped the sick and dying when no one else would. This benefited them in many ways such as showing the pagans they were different, providing opportunities to give an explanation to the catastrophe, giving them immunity to the diseases, and keeping their own alive. All of these helped equalize the numeric difference between Christians and pagans.
A fourth topic is the role of women in the culture and in the Church. "Christian subcultures in the ancient world rapidly developed a very substantial surplus of females, while in the pagan world around them males greatly outnumbered females" (128). This was caused by factors such as the Bible's prohibition against infanticide and abortion. Also, women were attracted to Christianity because of the higher status they enjoyed within the family and within the life of the local church (128).
Another key to understanding Christianity's growth was that Christianity was an urban movement (129). Because Christianity thrived in the cities, and cities had a constant overturning of people (due to disease, catastrophe, and movement) it grew rapidly.
Martyrdom moved Christianity forward by cutting down on the free rider mentality. Without this dead weight the movement surged onward. It also proved to outsiders that this was real to them. But ultimately, Christianity grew through personal interaction between the believer and his neighbor.
Stark finishes his work with "A Brief Reflection on Virtue." Here he explains that Christianity thrived because it "gave to its converts was nothing less than their humanity. In this sense virtue was its own reward" (215).
Starks observations are accurate in many cases. Truly each of his chapters reflects another reason why Christianity was able to survive and thrive in the hostile polytheistic culture. His work in modern religious movements also helps the reader to understand the workings of a convert's movement from one set of beliefs to another.
While offering the reader possible scientific explanation to the growth of the religion which shaped the last two millennia, Stark forgot the foundation. His book is sadly missing the working of God. The Holy Spirit was not mentioned, Pentecost was discounted, and the reality of the truth which the Christians believed was pushed aside.
This book is nicely summarized by Newsweek statement on cover "A fresh, blunt and highly persuasive account of how the West was won - for Jesus". Where Stark has missed the mark is that the West was not won merely "for" Jesus. It was won by Jesus. This book is a "scientist's" attempt at explaining the unexplainable - an omnipotent God stepping into time and calling people to Himself.