Iraq, Afghanistan, Georgia, Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Turkey - all areas of the world we have become so familiar with in the past decade. We think of most of them as Muslim and for the most part they are. But do we know that for the first thirteen hundred years after Christ, they were the hotbed of Christian expansion. Lands of vibrant Christian growth. Churches in almost every village across the Middle East. Great libraries and magnificent church art and architecture. Thousands of monasteries which produced the leading Christian scholarship in the world. These centers of learning preserved some of the earliest manuscripts of the Bible. Some of the words to our modern liturgies are dated from this era. But, unfortunately, most of the evidence of such a dynamic Christianity is all but gone. The churches, the artwork, the libraries with most of their books and manuscripts, the monasteries as well as the Christians are no longer there. It is hard to find any trace that Christianity was ever a presence there and surely not an influential one.
What happened? That is the story Philip Jenkins tells in his highly readable new book called, The Lost History of Christianity. He looks for clues to discover the reasons behind the virtual elimination (extermination) of Christianity from it's birthplace. How could a Faith so entrenched for so long over so great an area simply vanish? He tells of wave after wave of persecution, from Mongols to Muslims, until the great mass and power of Islam crushed all Christian belief. He tells of climate change (yes, it was a factor then, too), and plagues that decimated populations. And the Christian infighting among the Orthodox, Catholic, and Nestorians in the East prevented Christianity from having a unified front. The periodic corruptions within the church itself led many but the truly committed to fall away from the Faith.
It's a fascinating story with a modern twist. The Middle East is very much in the daily news today and a lot of it directly impacts us. I bet a lot of us are far more "expert" in our understanding of the Middle East than we were ten years ago! But, Jenkins allows us to draw some connections from what happened in those early years of the Christian Church in the East to
Where the early Christian church failed to put down deep roots especially among the poorer people who lived outside the great cities, it collapsed more quickly to outside pressures. By 700 the once vibrant Christianity of North Africa (St.Augustine's home) was gone while the Coptic Church in Egypt still survives to this day. The spread of Christianity in Egypt was widespread among the ordinary people of the day and it had deep roots.
As Christianity spread eastward it institutionalized. It built great church buildings and monasteries with large collections of books and manuscripts. It amassed a lot of properties. It organized itself into a hierarchy of clergy leadership. All of which made it a sitting duck for those who wanted to attack it and bring it down. Where it survived the longest is where it was more decentralized and the power was spread out among the laypeople. Church life there depended less on the institution and more on the fellowship of the Word.
Geography played a role too in the vanishing churches of the East. Invasions and wars were commonplace at that time. Some communities were prone to decline simply because they were located in the wrong place at the wrong time. The great Muslim warlord Timor wreaked massive destruction all over Asia where he exterminated whole cities in his path but he never made it to Egypt because it was out of the way.
Churches became too attached to a ruling political regime and when the regime changed so did the fortunes of the Church in that place.
But perhaps the best lesson to be learned from the collapse of Eastern Christianity is that nothing is forever. That can be taken two ways. Our successes in ministry and mission may be short lived. Congregational life is cyclical. Over a long time span. Lots of conditions conspire together to cause decline or growth in a congregation. And where Christianity has burned out or been burned out, a spark remains in the embers. Christianity in China has had four starts; the first three failed. The fourth looked like a failure too when the Communists took over in 1949. Since that date, Christianity has flourished, growing from 5 million believers to as many as 90 million today! In the tenth century, a Christian observer, noted that on a recent visit to China he could not find one Christian believer.
We can assume too much control for "our" churches and take too much credit for their successes and growth. We think all we need to do is get the right pastor, or worship leader or new technology and we can grow this thing called a church. Or, we take too much blame for the decline of a church. If only, we had done this or that.... God is still in control of this thing. His ways are mysterious and all our expertise is not all that valuable but what is - is a long obedience in the right direction - to use a title from one of Eugene Peterson's books.