Nietzchke said that the last Christian died on the cross. The charge is not fair, of course. At the very least, there is no denying that the first generation Christians possessed a potent message backed up by an amazing witness in their lives. I see no reason not to be impressed by the deeply transformed Peter, Paul, John, James the brother of Jesus, etc.
Moreover, it is clear that Christianity thrived in a society that was positively hostile to it. Skeptical propoganda about Christianity thriving because of the sanction of the state is ridiculous and inaccurate. Constantine did make Christianity the state religion c. 315 AD, but that was nearly 300 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus and throughout those three centuries there was frequent attempts to annihilate the Christian faith.
Fine, you say, but then I say that the last Christian died in Diocletian's persecution (c. 290 AD). There aren't any today.
The charge still is not fair but there can be no question that there is a qualitative difference between the New Testament church and the Church today. Nearly everyone I meet says that if Christians behaved more like we see them behaving in the New Testament (selling off possessions, being martyrs, etc) they would find Christianity more credible. I think that is what Nietzchke was getting at.
At some point the Church became so entrenched that it seemed as though the best way to propogate the faith was to erect massive buildings and invest in expensive educational facilities and make sure you had the king's ear- or were the king. In a sense, it is hard to deny the results: so called Christian cultures only began to crumble in the last hundred years ago. But the seeds of their demise go back earlier and stem, I contend, from the intuitive recognition that the Church of the Bureaucracy just isn't worthy of allegiance. Mere arguments of the truth of Christianity's claims paled in comparison to the cold plodding of the Institutional Church.
And the Church is still plodding along in about the same way today.
Why was the early church effective? Simply put, they put their money where their mouths were. Don't Christians put their money where their mouths are? Yes, actually, they do. And for some reason, a lot of Christians are saying with those mouths that the most important thing is to transform the culture (or continue to hold it) or retain tax exemption or build massive buildings to 'worship' in. Where did the early church put their mouths? On helping the poor, on helping the needy amongst them, on making sure that 'no one had need' (see Acts 2:45). In a word, there was genuine community. There was a genuine 'band of brothers.'
Something about the way we do things today makes it hard to build and sustain genuine community. What is it? We'd better find out.
You might say, "But it isn't fair! It isn't practical for us to live as they lived then!"
That's the point.
Not that I disagree with the analysis, but just because it isn't practical doesn't mean we should resign ourselves to it. Rather, we should do what it takes make it practical.
Hoping that the Christian Gospel can exhibit its full power without the authenticating power of an authentic community to proclaim it is like hoping you can have faith without works.
Anthony Horvath is the Executive Director of Athanatos Christian Ministries. He is the author of the Birth Pangs series and blogs at sntjohnny.com. He is available for speaking and consulting. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.