The Other Side of Church Growth
The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died
Jenkins, John Philip
October 28, 2008
336 pp., $16.55
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.