The Other Side of Church Growth
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.