Fade or Flourish in 1st Millenium Urban Churches

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.

  1.  Cities do not necessarily have negative population growth rate.  Sanitation and health practices have changed over the recent decades.
  2.  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.

Missions History of the East– Can These Bones Live?

Nestorian cross of the Yuan dynasty

Occasionally I get to teach Missions History, and one time I was able to teach Church History. As I reflect on these topics, I am struck again by the shocking lack of respect given to the missions movement(s) of the Eastern Church in the first millennium (primarily) and to a lesser extent in the second millennium. Why is that? A few guesses:

  • Popularized Missiology tends to come in two major varieties– Roman Catholic and Protestant. Both come out of the Western Church not the Eastern Church(es). Hardly surprising that they would focus on the missional stream they grew out of.
  • Related to the first, the Church(es) of the East are often seen as schismatic or even heretical by the Western Churches. The term “Nestorian” used by many in the West for the first millennium missionaries in the East is a term of heresy– although it is doubtful that the term really applied (and now where most Christians can’t even understand the difference between the modalism of the “United Pentecostal Church” and orthodox Trinitarianism, it is doubtful that many would consider actual Nestorians or Monophysites heretical anyway)
  • Related to the second, the Western churches have tended to seek to minimize or squelch missions of the Eastern churches. In the Crusades, the Western church tended to attack churches of the East.  Excommunications (such as the bizarre last straw of the Great Schism in 1054AD), competition (such as “Latin Rite” churches set up in Eastern lands), book burnings (such as in the Thomasite churches of India by the Portuguese), and general uncooperativeness (such as in dealing with the Mongol Empire) were the norm. With Protestant missions today, there is often a general belief that Eastern churches lack “saving faith” (strange since there’s is a faith that has survived 2000 years of minority status and considerable periodic persecution).
  • Much of the missionary gains of the Eastern Church disappeared in the 11th through 13th centuries. There is a tendency (especially among Protestants, but perhaps with all people to some extent) to see the “Body of Christ” as existing only in the NOW. We are tied to the church that exists now… not to the church of the past or the future. Why? I honestly don’t know. In the end, there seems to be a feeling that the Church of the East ultimately was a missional dead-end. A failed experiment dead and gone.

Since I teach in the Philippines, I feel there is a real need to teach missions that has flowed through Asia in the first millennium and into the second millenium. While the church may not have reached the Philippines until the 1500s (although some believe traders brought it far earlier on a small-scale) the church has been alive and well in Asia for two thousand years. But here are a few reasons that I think that all Christians should study Missions of the Eastern Church.

  1. Three of the most successful missionary movements in Christian history involved Asian/Eastern Churches. One of these is the so-called Nestorian missionary movement that swept from modern-day Syria and Iraq across the Silk Road(s) to China and beyond in the first millennium. This was an amazing accomplishment during a period that missions in the West was almost non-existent (except with the Celtic missions). Less immediately impresseive, but ultimately more enduring was the mission movement of the Orthodox church into Slavic lands inthe first millenium. The third great missionary movement was the Russian Orthodox movement that swept across Northern Asia and into parts of North America in the 1700s. While this may have been tied to expansion of the Russian Empire, that is often true in mission movements anyway. And in the case of the Russian Orthodox movement, it has also endured. To study missions history while ignoring these three major movements is,  I feel, inconceivable.
  2. Christianity needs to embrace its Asian roots as part of its present mission. Christianity, although founded in Asia, and having most of its early centers in modern-day, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq, has become thought of by many as a European religion (or a religion of Europe and the Americas). Frankly, such a view is woefully out of date. However, it is also historically flawed. The largest continent with the largest population with the largest number unreached is Asia. Christianity needs to embrace its Asian roots and its Asian history. The growth of the Chinese church in recent years has been helped with the understanding that Christianity is a “Chinese Religion” dating back at least to 635AD — only three years after the death of Islam’s founder, and only 34 years after the first major Western missionary work in Great Britain. Christianity was well established in India within the first two centuries of the church age. It has been argued that the “bhakti” devotion found in the Bhagavad Gita, was influenced by Christians in India. The first “Christian kingdoms” were in Asia (Osrhoene and Armenia) not Rome.
  3. The missionary movements of the church of the east are far from gone. There are millions of Christians in Asia today who are the product of the outreach of the Eastern churches. Churches survive throughout the Middle East and India. Some, like the Armenian church are quite strong. They are not just part of our past, but part of our present. The Orthodox Church has, in the last century, woken up to missions, and has again become an effective missionary force.
  4. We can learn from them. The missionary movements of the East were wildly successful… and disastrous. What can we learn from them both positively and negatively? What can we gain from them in terms of contextualization and strategy? We can learn about how to do Inter-religious Dialogue from the Nestorians (Consider the Apology of Timothy I). The Eastern churches were interacting peacefully with the Asian great religions when the Western church only knew interaction through the sword. The  Eastern church were converting people from those same great religions centuries before the Western church recognized generally that they can be brought to Christ.

This is not a call to switch from the Western church to the Eastern. Rather it is a call to recognize that we all are part of the Global Church and can learn from the Global Church.

Ultimately, I would like to add the thought that the past can come alive again. The church in China is thriving in part due to mission work centuries earlier that appeared to have died. The church in India and Syria and more have deep, deep roots that perhaps can be watered and tended to bear new fruit. I would like to apply a passage of Scripture (somewhat out of context) to God’s work in the East. In the words of the prophet Ezekiel,

The hand of the LORD was upon me, and He brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; and it was full of bones. He caused me to pass among them round about, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley; and lo, they were very dry. He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord GOD, You know.”  -Exekiel 17:2-3

“Bazaar” Missions

I was reading an article in the International Journal of Frontier Missions (Spring 2011) and I saw that I was quoted… which is kind of cool. I’m sure some get used to that, but it’s still fairly new to me.

I had written an article on the use of trade routes by the early Christians (“Nestorian” missionaries particularly) in spreading the Gospel across Asia in the first millenium AD. I had suggested that the trade route concept may have value today  (utilizing shipping nodes such as airports and sea ports). However, the article in IJFM looked at the idea of the trade routes, but focused on the bazaar as being a potential point of access and spread for the gospel.

I think the author made a strong point… stronger than mine… and that is great.  Below is the link for the article.

“A “Bazaar” Mission Strategy,” by Gene Daniels