Worship and Evangelism in Pre-Christendom

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Joint Liturgical Studies 32

About one thing at least there is no dispute; the pre-Christendom church was growing. Contemporaries commented on it: the late second-century Epistle to Diognetus noted soberly that Christians ‘day by day increase more and more.’ In the middle of the following century Origen could write without fear of contradiction about ‘the multitude of people coming to the faith.” Across the Roman Empire, for those who looked behind the facades, there was evidence of growth. In Rome the first congregations were literally house churches. Meeting in the largest rooms of their members who were rarely wealthy, the people attending could rarely have totalled much higher than fifteen or twenty.’ But by the mid-third century, congregations were growing in numbers and wealth. So Christians, who still met in insulae (islands), multi-storied blocks containing shops and housing, unobtrusively began to convert private spaces into domestic complexes tailored to congregational needs. They knocked down walls to unite apartments, thereby creating the varied spaces, large and small, that were required by the lives of their growing communities. The titulus Byzantis in Rome as well as the famous domus ecclestae in Dura Europos in Eastern Syria were both, in the words of architectural historian Richard Krautheimer, ‘inconspicuous community centres.’ In many respects their life was still domestic, but their changing architecture reflected the expanding life and numbers of their communities.’ It was in such a building in Caesarea that Origen discovered that the growth of the church and its houses could be pastorally problematic: some people, he complained, were playing truant during his daily homilies and had ‘hidden in the remotest corners of the house of the Lord [dominicae domus], … [where they] occupy themselves with profane stories.”

Alan Kreider