In our time, we are witnessing an extraordinary phenomenon: the virtual wiping out of the church in a place it has existed for nearly 2,000 years. The plight of Iraq’s Christian community reminds us that church expansion is not a constantly upward slope.
In his 2002 book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, historian Philip Jenkins told the world where Christianity was heading. In his latest—The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia — and How It Died (HarperOne, 2008)—Jenkins looks at where it has come from. The Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Humanities at Penn State University, Jenkins first notes that the faith is not rooted in any one culture. “The more you look at history, the more you realize Christianity is not solely a European religion,” he says. “It’s European, but it’s also Asian and African, and it has a long history of developing in very different societies.”
Second, Jenkins shows how and why churches in entire regions have died. Christianity Today‘s managing editor for special projects, Stan Guthrie, spoke with Jenkins.
What causes church death?
In no case that I can see does a church simply fade away through indifference. What kills a church is persecution. What kills a church is armed force, usually in the interest of another religion or an antireligious ideology, and sometimes that may mean the destruction or removal of a particular ethnic community that practices Christianity. So churches die by force. They are killed.
But what about the old saying, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”?
That was said by Tertullian, who came from the church in North Africa, where the church vanished. If you were to look at the healthiest part of Christianity right around the year 400 or 500, you might well look at North Africa, roughly what we call Tunisia and Algeria. It was the land of Augustine. Then the Arabs, the Muslims, arrive. They conquer Carthage in a.d. 698, and 100 years later—I don’t say there were no Christians there, but there certainly was only a tiny, tiny number. That church dies.
Why does persecution sometimes strengthen a church and other times wipe it out?
The difference is how far the church establishes itself among the mass of people and doesn’t just become the church of a particular segment, a class or ethnic group. In North Africa, it’s basically the church of Romans and Latin-speakers, as opposed to the church of peasants, with whom the Romans don’t have much connection. When the Romans go, Christianity goes with them.
But Christianity establishes itself very early as a religion of the ordinary, everyday people in Egypt as things get translated into Coptic. As a result, after almost 1,400 years under Muslim rule, there is still a thriving Coptic church that represents [perhaps] 10 percent of the Egyptian people—which I would personally put forward as the greatest example of Christian survival in history.
How do lessons like that apply to Iraq, where Christians are under pressure from Muslims?
Iraq is a classic example of a church that is killed over time. The church will probably cease to exist within my lifetime. It has probably gone from a figure of about 5 percent to what it is now, 0.5 percent, in the last 50 years or so. You can’t continue losses like that forever. At some point, you are down to the last one or two people.
Do I think that literally there will be no Christians in Iraq? No. But I believe the communities will be all but eliminated as entities. There are odd communities, including on the Nineveh plains, but they are quite small, and are mainly waiting for visas to allow them to leave the country.
So as to why the church is dying in Iraq, I would point again to persecution, to the rise of radical Islamist ideologies that make life intolerable for minority communities. Just as important is the state’s role, or the lack thereof. If you remove the state, with its ability to hold mobs and vigilantes in check, you open the door to the uprooting and expulsion of those minorities.
You write about the ratchet effect. What do you mean?
It is one of the most worrying things. Persecution doesn’t have to exist absolutely constantly over 500 or 1,000 years. Minorities get on perfectly well for 50 years and then there’s persecution and the population is reduced. The ratchet turns another notch, and it will go one way but it won’t turn back. That sort of sporadic persecution through the centuries is what can really destroy a faith.
What are the ways churches can respond to persecution and grow their communities and their faith?
It very much depends on what the challenge is. If you are dealing with a major armed persecution, then you really have to go into survival mode. As I was writing this book, I became very conscious of one question, which is how you measure the success of a church. I am tempted to measure it in terms of numbers, whether it’s 5 percent of the population, 40 percent, or whatever. But I suppose an argument would be made by somebody from a Mennonite or Anabaptist tradition that that’s not the question—that the question is not numerical success but quality of witness, that the New Testament does not guarantee worldly success or growth or megachurches. It actually does include persecution as a fundamental part of the package. So maybe that fact is one we have to come to terms with.
You argue that we are lacking a theology of church extinction. Why do we need one?
I sometimes ask audiences how many people have ever read a book on the growth or establishment of a church, and many people raise their hands. Then I ask how many people have ever read a book on the death or extinction of a church, and virtually nobody does. But in history, church death is a very common phenomenon. Christianity moves from one area to another, but it also dies in areas where it has been strong. That fact violates a lot of what we expect about Christian growth. We have a theology of mission, not a theology of retreat. So do we explain these episodes as the churches doing something horribly wrong? Do we regard them as a natural part of historical development? Do we think that if Muslims replaced Christians in a country like Iraq, the expansion of Islam must be within God’s plan? How Christians actually deal with things like the destruction of the church in Iraq is by not talking about it. We pay no attention to it because we don’t know about it.
So our ignorance is both a product of our own historical situation and maybe a willful turning of our eyes from the carnage?
It’s something of that. But I don’t want to criticize Americans who, for example, are very conscious of the suffering church. And they try to alleviate that suffering and intervene politically. But suppose churches do vanish. Across much of the Middle East, the last century since 1915 has been catastrophic in terms of the destruction or annihilation of churches. I really don’t know people who are writing about that or trying to address that theologically.
How do you relate that need to the obvious spread of Christianity around the world?
I suppose coincidence is not a word that should be used by anyone who has any sense of Providence, but 1915 marks the beginning of the end of Christians in the Middle East, and the beginning of mass Christianity in Africa. It’s almost as if one door closes and another one opens elsewhere. I would not say God closed one eye and opened another, but when Christianity is at its weakest in one area, amazing new opportunities open elsewhere. My concern is that when we write Christian history, so often it’s a matter of, “Let’s look at this expansion, and let’s look at this growth and new opportunity.” We’re not really seeing the doors that are closing—which would have been a great title for the book.
Philip Jenkins is the author of The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia — and How It Died (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2008).