A Church Built to Last? Part One


<PART ONE>

Why does the Church in some parts of the world grow, while in other parts dies? As noted by Dr. Philip Jenkins, 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“, we need to develop a Theology of Extinction.  This also implies that we need to develop a Theology of Survival as well.

Why has the church essentially died in some parts of the world, thrived in other parts, and endured in yet others?  Some like to argue that it has to do with persecution. Yet with persecution there is no set agreement. Some would argue that persecution leads to a strong growing church, like China in the 20th century and the Roman Empire during the beginnings of the church. Others point out that persecution leads to extinction, such as in North Africa and Central Asia in the latter parts of the 1st millenium.

Some argue that the lack of political (or theological) unity of the church can lead to extinction. The lack of unity certainly hurt during the Crusades in Europe, and during the Mongol Empire in Eastern Asia. On the other hand, in the last two centuries, the church has grown greatly without political unity.

Some might argue a spiritual explanation. Churches of sound doctrine or of spiritual fervor will persevere, according to this theory. There seems little good evidence of this. Heterodoxy has a great deal of resiliency. Also, the idea that longevity of a church evidences spiritual vitality begs the question of how this can be demonstrated. Generally the demonstration becomes cyclic… the church must have spiritual vitality because it survived.

This “blog” does not seek to answer this question, but evidence the lack of knowledge in this area. Philip Jenkins does point out an interesting comparison… that of Egypt and the North African church. Both regions were overrun by Islamic invaders in the 7th century AD. Both suffered persecution (mild at times, intense at others). Both were profoundly important centers of Christianity before the invasion. Yet each responded very differently.

The North African church was mostly destroyed within 50 years of the invasion, and was (as far as can be determined) completely gone by the 12th century.  On the other hand, the Egyptian (Coptic) church maintained vitality, size, and relevance in Egypt to this day.

While many theories can be given, perhaps the most defensible has to do with the concept of the “Enculturation”.  In other words, the question is whether the church ever became a church of the local people. In Egypt, the Coptic Church was definitely the church of the local people. The name “Coptic” even comes from a corruption of the old term for Egypt. The language of the church was the language of the local peoples. On the other hand, the church of North Africa was Latin. That is, the church was mostly of the Roman peoples who settled there rather than of the local peoples. The liturgy and Bible of North Africa was Latin… never being translated into the languages of the local peoples (unlike in Egypt). With the Islamic invasion, the church in North Africa died, to a large extent, because (despite such early church fathers as Augustine, Cyprian, and Tertullian) the church of North Africa was an expatriate church, not a local church.  The church fled because North Africa wasn’t its home.

This is not a unique example. The Nestorian mission movement of the 1st century had the same problem. It created a string of churches, metropolitans, hospitals, and libraries all along the Silk Road from Antioch to China… but did failed in Central Asia and China to create a church of the local people. It is no surprise that one of the points emphasized by Christian churches in China today is that Christianity is a local (Chinese), not foreign, religion.

Lamin Sanneh notes the importance of Translation (adapting Christianity to local cultures) in the mission work of Christianity, rather than Diffusion (forcing cultures to change to a foreign culture). The Jerusalem Council (Acts chapter 15) set the trend. A Greek can be a good Christian without becoming Jewish. Missions today must also follow this pattern or risk repeating the extinctions of the past.

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