One of the mysteries in Christianity is why some churches thrive and others fade. Some see the fate of churches as a direct result of their faith. A church of bad or inadequate faith will fade away, while a church of solid faith will endure and prosper. In other words:
Faith Determines Fate
(But is that really true?)
This belief can become a tautology. A church that prospers is then seen as having a robust faith while a church that dies is seen as having inadequate faith. In truth, this is heavily presumptive. A fading church is seen as having inadequate faith, and this inadequate faith is demonstrated by the fact that the church fades away.
Consider two cases— the Roman church of North Africa (modern-day Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria) and the Nestorian church of the Central Asian traderoutes— both of these in the 1st millenium AD.
Both essentially died out (or at least became tiny enclave minorities). Why? Some would say that it is due to the Muslim Invasion (especially for the North African churches) or Muslim and Mongol rule in Central Asia. Yet, the church of Egypt survived and even thrived in almost 1400 years of Muslim rule (despite occasional pogroms). The same can be said of the church in Syria. In some places, like Greece and Spain, Muslim rulership had almost no long-term impact. In church of China in the 20th century (as well as the early church under Roman rule) grew tremendously under sporadic and sometimes systematic persecution. It is hard to see a general pattern.
Still, at least in some cases, one can make a good guess. Consider the churches of the Silk Road(s) in Central Asia. They thrived for centuries and then began to fade out. Why? There are several possible reasons. However, one major reason was probably the fact that Nestorian Christianity was primarily a religion of the traderoute cities in Central Asia. In other words, it had not worked its way into the countryside for the most part.
To understand the importance of this, one must note the fact that until the growth of sanitation methodologies in the 1800s, cities had a negative biological growth rate. That is, for a city to maintain its population, people had to keep moving into it from surrounding areas.
A traderoute city had a transient population of traders, and a local population of residents that must be regularly restocked with people in the surrounding lands to maintain itself. For several centuries a large percentage of the traders (transient population) were Christians. Many residents in the city were Christian as well. However, since the surrounding countryside was not generally reached, the resident population was regularly dealing with an inflow of non-Christians. For the Christian church to survive in such a setting, the church needed to do more than simply raise up Christian children. Because of the negative biological growth of cities (more dying than born), the church had to constantly convert those moving into the city. This was helped by a large transient population of Christian traders. However, as the new Millenium was starting, the number of traders who were Christian began to drop. This may have been due to some new laws in Muslim-held territories. It may have also been due to Christianity being declared illegal in China starting in the 9th century.
With the transient population becoming increasingly non-Christian, the inflow of new residents being predominantly non-Christian, and the negative biological population rate of Christians in these trade cities, the decline was hardly shocking.
North African had a similar situation, but even more extreme. The church in this region was quite vibrant in the major cities, but also had little impact in the rural areas. Additionally, Christianity had a Roman flair to it that was out of touch with the majority of (“Hamitic”) residents of North Africa. With the Muslim invasion, and the corresponding reduction of interaction with Roman/Western lands, the city population was maintained by the inflow of people from the surrounding areas who were not only not Christian, but had little in common culturally with the Christians living in the cities. In places like Egypt, Christianity had well overflowed the cities into the countryside so the church endured and prospered. In the rest of North Africa, the decline was swift.
This is a hypothesis and I am not sure how solid it would be in terms of predicting results. But it is also true that things are a bit different today.
How are things different now.
- Cities do not necessarily have negative population growth rate. Sanitation and health practices have changed over the recent decades.
- People are still moving to cities for opportunity, but this migration is causing many cities to not simply maintain but grow. This has led to mega-cities or GUCs (Great Urban Centers).
Because of this, it may no longer be true that urban Christianity has to reach out intentionally beyond the urban areas to survive. There is now a growing outflow that occurs naturally that may in some places more than match the inflow of peoples. That being said, history has not smiled on Christian efforts that limit themselves by ignoring the cities (at one extreme) or ignoring the countryside (on the other).
I believe we live in the fourth wave of Protestant Missions. The first three waves were : Coastlands, Interiors, and UPGs (Unreached People Groups). I think we are really in a fourth now. That is the GUCs (Great Urban Centers). Human migration, combined with the changing social and demographic dynamics of cities has moved away from UPGs to pluralistic urban communities. This does not mean that rural areas can be ignored. But it does mean that the dynamics of the 1st Millenium do not fully apply today. Ministry in the GUCs can impact the surrounding areas due to outflow. (Note that it was the unregulated outflow of residents of Jerusalem due to persecution that initially started the great expansion of the church in the first century.)
I do think it is safe to say that persecution is NOT a cause of church extinction. Neither is disempowerment. There are far too many examples of the church thriving in these situations. However, the church has not done so well when it ignores the ethnic diversity of its surroundings, or bases its outreach on the presumption that the status quo will remain unchanged into the future.
To fail to prepare for change is to prepare to fade.