Eleanor Kreider is the keynote speaker at this year’s Pastors & Leaders | Deep Faith Conference (Feb. 21-24). The conference will draw insights from the late Alan Kreider’s book: “The Patient Ferment of the Early Church.” His wife, Eleanor Kreider, will offer brief reflections on the book at each session. Alan was professor emeritus of church history and mission at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) and author of several books. For many years Alan and Eleanor served as missionary teachers in England. While teaching in seminaries and speaking internationally, they stimulated interest in the early church. Eleanor is a church musician and is the author of several books on worship (“Enter His Gates” “Communion Shapes Character,” “Worship in Historical and Contemporary Perspectives”). Eleanor is retired and lives in Goshen, Indiana.
What does the title mean?
Patient ferment describes why and how the early church grew so rapidly. Christians’ witness was their honest, generous, patient lifestyle. Their lives caused others to ask questions, like, “Why do they refuse to offer incense to the gods?” “See how they love one another!” and “How can they live with such confident calmness, in the face of poverty and persecution?” Following Jesus, the exemplar of patience, Christians respected people and didn’t rush or force results. Ferment refers to hidden, secret, but powerful, growth. The sub-title of Alan Kreider’s book explains it: “the improbable rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire.”
Why listen to the early church?
But it’s not Scripture! Why should we spend time and effort learning about people who lived 1800 years ago? Think of them, thousands of miles away, from a totally different culture, speaking different languages. What could their religion possibly have in common with ours? I offer a few reasons.
The early Christians of the Mediterranean regions lived much closer to the time and circumstances of Jesus himself. For many, people in living memory actually knew him, his family and his disciples.
The fact is that we are linked with the early Christians in our DNA of faith. No matter what denomination, our roots are in those first three centuries of Christian experience. We all share belief in God the Creator of all, in the beloved Jesus Christ, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Eastern Orthodox, African Christians, South Indian Christians, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, European Protestants — all of us are essentially of one family, birthed from the Hebrew faith through commitment to Jesus, the incarnated one. The early church is the mother of us all.
Questions and clues
Because a lot of written documents survive from the first few centuries — letters, sermons, court records, church orders, liturgical patterns — we find many things common between early believers, but we also find surprising activities and attitudes. These can pose questions, for example: “Why did they stress teaching Christian behavior before disclosing Christian beliefs?” “Why did they reserve worship attendance only for baptized members?” “Why did they worship in homes, in family-sized congregations?”
As we listen to early Christians, we may receive relevant clues for enriching our churches’ lives today, for example: Baptism can be an enormously powerful ritual, prayer is truly the power house of Christian worship, and regular Sunday Eucharist is at the heart of Christian worship.
In those early days, churches had no public sermons, no seminars, no workshops, no programs or models for building multi-ethnic worship or establishing communities of cross-cultural relationships. And yet, their numbers grew enormously.
How could that be? One of the early teachers said, “We know that our witness is not in rehearsing words but in showing forth good deeds.” People were drawn to faith by the attractive everyday lives of Christians who followed the ways of Jesus and the ideals of the Hebrew prophets.
Preparation for baptism was lengthy, could last months or even a few years. Lord’s Day worship continued baptismal formation, shaping Christians into mature and faithful congregations. All of this required patience. That is, willingness to take time, to hold on, to endure, to wait, to trust and to hope. Becoming Christian and integrating prayer and discipleship called for profound patience.
Conversation across geography and generations
Early Christian documents do not give us templates for our worship and Christian discipleship. We should not try to imitate the churches in Syria or in north Africa. But conversing with those early Christians stimulates our imagination; it impels us to read again our shared Gospels and Hebrew Scriptures.
As we converse with Christians of the first several centuries, we also must continue to converse with our Christian siblings across the world in our own time. Whatever the place, language or culture, we all desire to follow Jesus. The Holy Spirit will keep us on track, as we worship in congregations dedicated to Christ-like peacemaking and prayer. Patience is the Christian virtue that reminds us and shows us the way to attractive witness and solid growth.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.