It seems de rigueur for the press to make us miserable around Christmas. The Christmas day front-page headline for my hometown paper, The Baltimore Sun, read “Joy of the Season Overshadowed.” The article then proceeded to discuss the killing of elementary school students in Newtown, Connecticut on Dec. 16 as opposed to reminding us of the birth of our Savior on Dec. 25. While the Newtown massacre is tragic and senseless, and should never be forgotten, one wonders if our culture needs to constantly wallow in its own mire. Can’t the day of Jesus’ birth be an opportunity for joy, beauty, and celebration?
In a similar depressing vein, I came across an article published online just two days before Christmas in the British Newspaper, “The Telegraph.” The title was: “Christianity Close to Extinction in the Middle East?”
In its own words, “the study warns that Christians suffer greater hostility across the world than any other religious group. And it claims politicians have been ‘blind’ to the extent of violence faced by Christians in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.”
The report can be summarized with these 6 disturbing conclusions: (1) the persecution of Christians is at its worst in nine countries – Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, China, Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria, India, Burma; (2) the most common threat to Christians abroad is militant Islam; (3) Christians are targeted for persecution more than any other body of believers; (4) persecution of Christians is generally ignored by most governments; (5) between a half and two-thirds of Christians in the Middle East have left the region or been killed in the past century; (6) and, finally, “There is now a serious risk that Christianity will disappear from its biblical heartlands”. (By “heartlands”, this article is referring to the Middle East.)
What are we to make of this dismal study? If you find yourself disheartened by such reports, perhaps you may be encouraged by my following 3 observations:
(1) This study ignores the reality that persecution has never been shown to have the power to squelch the spread of the Gospel and the growth of the Church. In fact, to the contrary, the missiologist’s creed comes from Tertullian’s words in the 2nd century AD: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
Or as a more recent thinker has said: ” If one were to search the annals of the history of missions, he would find that rarely, if ever, has the gospel spread to an unreached people group when it had not first been planted and watered by the blood of the saints.”
(2) Evangelical Christianity in the 21st century continues to be the fastest growing religion in the world. Though many studies claim that Islam is growing faster than any other religion, those studies fail to distinguish between the decline of nominal Christianity and the incredible growth in evangelical Christianity. Further, whereas Islam’s growth is predicated upon having many children and the intimidation of potential proselytes, the expansion of the Christian evangelical community is happening (a) in the face of persecution, (b) by proclamation of the Gospel and conviction of the Holy Spirit, (c) through deeds of mercy such as feeding the hungry, building hospitals, and digging wells.
(3) Patrick Johnstone has methodically, systematically, and conclusively catalogued the 21st century growth and spread of Christianity (in Asia, Latin America, and Africa) and the decline of the Church (in Europe, North America, and the Pacific). In his fabulous book “The Future of the Global Church” (2011), Johnstone gives clear evidence that Christianity will not be disappearing from the Middle East any time soon, suggesting that perhaps we should be more concerned with the extinction of Christianity from North America and Western Europe than we should from the Middle East!
Johnstone alleges that “the spread of Syrian and Persian Orthodox Christianity across much of western, central, and even eastern Asia is one of the most remarkable and little known episodes in church history” (102).
Further, due to the fact that the Telegraph article is focused on the geographical decline of Christianity, it necessarily fails to account for the ethnic growth of the Gospel beyond geographic borders. In other words, the phenomenal immigration and emigration patterns that we now see in the world are reshaping how the Gospel is spreading.
Though there are serious issues to be addressed in the growth of the Gospel in the geographic Middle East, there is much to be excited about in the spread of the Good News among Middle Eastern ethnic groups that have immigrated into parts of the world where the Gospel is available. In much of the free world, former residents of the Middle East are now coming to faith and indigenous ethnic Middle Eastern faith communities are thriving in North America and Europe (even as indigenous white, western, Caucasian churches are declining in North American and Europe).
Is Christianity Close to Extinction in the Middle East? Perhaps we may respond with an allusion to Mark Twain. On 4 May 1907, when people lost track of a yacht he was travelling on, the New York Times published an article saying he might have been lost at sea. In fact, the yacht had been held up by fog, and Twain had disembarked. Twain read the article, and cleared up the story by declaring: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
Early reports of the extinction of Christianity in the Middle East may, likewise, have been greatly exaggerated. There is much more to the missiology of this issue than The Telegraph is able to consider or address. Take heart!