This is just some ramblings of my own. As such, set your expectations rather low. Thank you.
Consider the figure above. Let’s consider it to describe the growth of Christianity in the what could be described as Roman lands in the first few centuries AD. Don’t assume the image is at all accurate. Now imagine that the BLUE line describes the percentage of the population who SELF-IDENTIFY THEMSELVES AS CHRISTIANS. Now imagine that the RED line describes the percentage of the population that are TRUE FOLLOWERS OF CHRIST. While I am fully aware that we are not God and so we cannot know who is a true follower of Christ, I think most people in most any religious culture (including non-Christian cultures) can understand the idea that there is a difference between those who affiliate themselves with a religion and those who take their faith seriously.
In the first centuries, there was presumably little difference between the red and blue lines since there was little motivation to align oneself with a politically and economically dis-empowered religion that was, at least sporadically, persecuted. As such, one may assume that perceived growth of the church was quite important from the standpoint of Kingdom expansion.
However, as the fourth century progressed, Christianity gained favor with Roman emperors, such that things switched. It was now advantageous socially and politically to align oneself with Christianity. Money and status flowed into churches, church structures, and hierarchical structures. Some of that increase in percentage of Christians could, presumably, be true followers of Christ. It would, however, seem reasonable to assume that a fair bit of that growth was from those people who changed affiliation due to this shift in power. Certainly the monastic movement and the change of standards regarding who could be baptized at that time suggests that there were many in the church then who were concerned with this change.
Now, one could move forward to a time of Stagnation. That is, the percentage of self-identified Christians tops off and may even begin to decline. One could see this as the church is failing. However, another POSSIBLE interpretation is that the social status of Christianity in the society has lessened, and so some drift away. In this figure, the percentage of true followers of Christ is still increasing.
If one was so inclined one might surmise that the area under the red line (colored pinkish) is the power of God acting in that society. If that is the case, than what would the blue-ish area be? It would be the social power that the church has above and beyond the work of God.
Now you could complain about this sketch and its interpretation… and I think that many complaints would be quite fair.
BUT… there is a principle here that is worth considering. When the church is in decline in percentage of those in affiliation… or when the church is losing social influence in a society… IS THAT A BAD THING?
Maybe it is bad… or maybe not. What may look like a declining of a church can be refining. On the other hand what could be seen as a refining could be a true decline. I am from the US where many Evangelicals are bemoaning losing political influence in the country (and those that hope that ‘stacking the deck’ in the Supreme Court might in some way reverse what seems inevitable. But is the loss of political influence a bad thing? Power can be addicting… and the wrong type of power in the church can reap very bad fruit. Removing the enticement of power and status can lead to a refining of the faithful or a separating of the faithful from the unfaithful (but interacting with the faithful).
Reading the Church History of Eusebius of Antioch, he was simply thrilled that Emperor Constantine had given favored status and social power to Christians. While that wasn’t necessarily bad in some ways… the Church did begin to fall in love with that sort of societal power. In fact, when people complain about religion today, often it is the fascination with and quest for political or societal power by religious groups and leaders that is at or near the top of the list.
I am not attempting to promote a theology of decline. I just would hope that the Church can embrace a role as faithful servants of God and blessers of our (non-Christian) neighbors, rather than hoarders of political and social status and power.
IT IS HARD TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN DECLINING AND REFINING.
AND WHEN IS GROWTH NOT ACTUALLY A GOOD THING.