The Apostle Paul wrote 14 or 15 epistles to various churches (the precise depends upon the author of Hebrews, believed to be Paul but never explicitly stated as in the other letters). Some were in Asia Minor, some in Greece, and one was in Rome itself. And while the letters are consistent in themes and ideas, they are also different.
Each of the churches was in a distinct community. While koine Greek might have been the primary lingua franca of the empire, and Paul used a similar governance model wherever he established churches, the fact is that the churches existed in specific communities. Some had issues with the prevailing paganism and centers of idol worship. The community at Corinth had to deal with a culture of extremely lax sexual mores, and how those mores were coming into the church.
And beyond Paul, the book of Revelation begins with short addresses to seven churches, each of which had a specific defining characteristic.
Yes, similarities existed. But each church was itself a specific community, being equipped to reach out to the specific community it lived within.
“After Jesus’ death and resurrection,” write Christopher Smith, John Pattison, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove in Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, “his disciples dispersed throughout the world and planted churches that were manifestations of Christ’s body in their particular places.” How could they not be? Some of the cities were old, older than the Roman Empire. Some had been planted by the empire as cities for their retired soldiers. And one was the heart of the empire, with all of its wealth, power, sophistication and brutality.
The churches had the same purpose; but the purpose had to be implemented in different communities.
Do we believe that church model that works for one community in suburban Chicago and one in Los Angeles will work just as effectively in Little Rock or St. Louis or New York?
Have we become so mesmerized with technology that we think that “sites” (a central church radiating out its worship services by video and webcast to smaller church groups in a metropolitan area) will work as well in New Orleans as it does in Nashville and Cleveland?
Have we been misled into believing that America is such a homogenized culture that everything works the same everywhere?
The authors of Slow Church refer to this as McDonaldization, the church model franchised everywhere regardless of whether it fits the community or not. They give credit for the idea and concept of McDonaldization to John Drane, author of The McDonaldization of the Church, who says that “while Christians should try to learn from the success and failures of other churches, we shouldn’t copy them.”
The church is in the local community for a reason. Paul didn’t start with an empire-wide concept of what the church should be.
Which may be a major reason why Christianity was so successful in the Roman Empire.
Photograph by Lynn Greyling via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.