Several years ago, a childhood friend of mine contacted me with some questions about the history of the early church. He had read some non-Christian fiction as well as seen programs that presented a distorted view of early Christianity. He knew I had spent over a decade and a half studying church history, so he had direct access to somebody who could help him think through his questions. Sadly, too many outsiders with a genuine interest in the history of the church have no place to turn but the internet, which is a treacherous ocean of ignorance obscuring a handful of sunken treasures of truth.
Thankfully, I was able to respond to all of my friend’s questions in a way that continued to intrigue him, keep his attention, and save him from being carried out to sea by persuasive currents of misinformation. Throughout our discussions, my friend eagerly asked for more and more. I recommended a couple books on the history of the early church, including Oskar Skarsaune’s excellent treatment of the first few centuries, In the Shadow of the Temple.
Within a few months, that friend of mine had read through Skarsaune and, by reading church history, became more curious about the unique claims of the historical Christian faith. He experienced a personal conversion to Christ, joined a believing church, got involved in its ministries, and continued growing in his faith. Last year he succumbed to cancer, having trusted in his Savior to the bitter end. Today that friend of mine is an immovable member of the body of Christ because church history captured his interest.
Yes, some people get bored when you mention history. Others become fearful or distrusting. Still others find it quaint and interesting, but unimportant. Yet several outsiders will be drawn to the claims of Christianity through a discussion of its historical roots and development. Many people today are interested in history in general and in religious history in particular—at least enough people to support a “History Channel” and push historical fiction and non-fiction up the New York Times bestsellers list. I’ve discovered that some skeptical, suspicious, or cautious outsiders will be far more open to discussing the history of the church than looking up verses in the Bible, conversing about competing religions, or weighing the claims of the gospel.
Many outsiders are fascinated by the neglected neighborhoods of Christian history rarely visited except by the most committed. The fact is, now more than ever we have an eager crowd of tourists wanting to know more. As the true heirs of church history, we have a choice: we can either let outsiders mangle our own story in ways that lead people away from the God of history . . . or we can be trained to serve as the tour guides of our own forgotten past.