“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” - Margaret Mead
People have wanted to change the world since the beginning of time. Few have actually done it. Countless political ideologies and social movements have had a moment in the sun only to fade with time. Drop a rock in the water and it will make a splash. Only the biggest will avoid being carried away in the current. A charismatic leader can inspire people to flock to their banner, but a cult of personality won’t outlast the person at the center of it. The initial excitement wanes, the thankless work of movement building doesn’t get easier, and the concerns of everyday life crowd out people’s attention. Even the truly committed have trouble passing that dedication on to their kids.
In the aftermath of Jesus Christ’s death, that same process should have destroyed Christianity. After all, that was what had happened many times before:
But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin [the Jewish Senate] and ordered that [the Christians] be put outside for a little while. Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered.”Jesus did not die at the head of an army that would push his legacy forward, like Moses or Mohammed. He wasn’t the son of a king, like Buddha. He didn’t even have a core following of thousands who rioted at his death, like Joseph Smith. So how did a penniless carpenter from a conquered tribe in a distant corner of the Roman Empire become the most influential person who ever lived? How did his followers, a tiny group of marginal figures led by an uneducated fisherman (the apostle Peter), sustain a movement that would one day take over the Empire? In The Master Plan of Evangelism, Robert Coleman outlines the secret to their success: they did it one person at a time.
- Acts 5:34-37
The story sounds too good to be true. People who don’t believe that Jesus was a real person often point to his absence from the historical record. If there was a guy raising people from the dead, turning water into wine, and feeding thousands with a few pieces of bread, surely it would have attracted more attention from contemporary sources. Everything we know about Jesus comes from the gospels, which were written by his disciples and some of their close associates. Jews believe that Moses himself wrote the first five books of the Old Testament, while Muslims claim that the Qur’an is the direct revelation of God to Muhammad. Christians get all their information about Jesus secondhand. The New Testament is not an autobiography. Jesus didn’t write anything down. He let his followers speak for him - that was precisely the point.
The most counter-intuitive aspect of his public ministry is how often he avoided big crowds. The Jews expected the coming Messiah to create a theocratic empire modeled after Rome. He was supposed to be the new Caesar, not render unto the old one. Jesus had his own plan. He hung out with people on the fringes of society, spoke in riddles, and pushed away half-hearted followers. He wasn’t aiming his message at the masses, or the movers and shakers who played the game of thrones. He discipled a small group of followers who would be able to spread his message long after his death. In the gospels, he spends three times as much time explaining the parable of the sower to his disciples in private than he does telling it to the crowd in the first place.
Jesus cared about the crowd; he just didn’t have the time to care for them individually. The only way he could trust his 12 disciples to lead his church was to to get to know them, building the type of deep personal relationships that would allow him to teach, guide, and correct them. He was a spiritual father to his disciples, and a father has to spend time with his family to raise them. Jesus didn't tell people what to do to live a good life; he showed them how to do it. He was a big believer in small class sizes -- his disciples were always at his side.
He spent his time on Earth showing his disciples how to have disciples of their own. Christianity is all about paying it forward. Exponential growth doesn’t require a lot of people in the beginning. If two people each teach two people who teach two more, the numbers add up quickly. It’s the wheat on a chessboard problem in action. Two to the power of four is 16. Two to the power of 16 is 32,768. Two to the power of 32 is well over 4 billion. With the faith of a mustard seed you can move a mountain. The people writing histories in Rome might not have known about Jesus at the time of his death, but their descendants knew who Peter and Paul were, and soon enough, it became impossible to write a history of the Roman Empire without Christianity. Jesus was Obi-Wan Kenobi: strike him down and he became more powerful than you could possibly imagine.
The gospel’s rate of transmission wasn’t going to be perfect, or anything close to it. Even the best disciples will make mistakes when they disciple others. Most will give up before they even try. Pouring yourself into others is a recipe for disappointment. Jesus, after all, was betrayed and sent to his death by one of the 12. People aren’t government bonds - there’s no guarantee of a return on investment. Over a long enough period of time, though, none of that mattered. Only a few needed to be faithful:
A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.
- Matthew 13:3-8Jesus could see beyond the span of his own life. When he told Peter to cast aside his nets and become a fisher of men 2,000 years ago, he started a chain reaction that is still bearing fruit today. No man is an island. Every Christian has other Christians in their life who hold them accountable and help them grow. If they don’t, they don’t stay Christians for very long. Giving speeches might do wonders for the ego, but speeches don’t change the lives of the people who hear them, at least not in the way that spending time and getting to know them will. The only way to change the world is to change the lives of the people around you. That’s what loving your neighbor is all about.