The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Steve Green made it the chorus of “The Faithful,” the CCM singer-songwriter’s 1998 ode to persecuted Christians. But is it true?

In Carthage, North Africa, early church theologian Tertullian argued that persecution actually strengthens the church; as martyrs bravely die for the faith, onlookers convert. Some 1,800 years later, restrictions on religion are stronger than ever. According to the Pew Research Center, 74 percent of the world’s population live in a country where social hostilities involving religion are high, and 64 percent live where government restrictions on religion are high. Does this explain why Christianity is likewise growing worldwide?

Not necessarily, says missiologist Justin Long, who recently compared Pew’s latest tally of religious freedom restrictions to Operation World’s latest tally of Christian growth (see chart). His conclusion: Church growth is "not strongly" correlated with either governmental or societal persecution. However, Christianity "tends loosely" to change more rapidly (grow or shrink) when governmental restriction is high, and stays relatively stable when such pressure is low.

History offers a "truly mixed record," said William Inboden, a Texas scholar affiliated with Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project. "Even though Christ gives the Great Commission before his Ascension, it almost takes the initial outbreak of persecution [in Acts] to spread the gospel," he said. But within 1,000 years, the once "largely Christian lands" of the Middle East and North Africa became overwhelmingly Muslim, he notes. Now their remnant ...

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