Why has Christianity declined so much in the Middle East?

My visit to the 7 churches in Asia Minor and my visit to Istanbul continues to make me think and to grapple with the decline of Christianity in the Middle East. The question I keep asking is why? I have already made a first stab at answering this but I know that there is much more to it than I have said. One of the questions going round my head is why did the early church (under even greater persecution) survive and flourish and grow? Why did the Chinese church, when under Mao’s cultural revolution all places of worship were closed; top leaders executed; religion banned, thrive and at least triple in size? But not the church in the Ottoman Empire. It declined to the extent that less than 1% of Turks are Christian.

There is a brilliant book by William Dalrymple called ‘From the Holy Mountain’ that looks at how and why so many of the Christian communities have declined. He takes his starting point as the travels of a monk just before Islam exploded on the scene from a Greek mountain (hence the title) down to Egypt through the lands of the Christian Byzantine Empire. Most he blames on the invaders and countries (including Israel). But here’s the thing – I understand the socio-political pressures; I get that the Islamic countries have persecuted Christians, as has Israel (albeit more subtly) and that in Lebanon the Christians played their hand badly; but why didn’t the early church collapse or the chinese church collapse? They too were equally badly treated (and often worse). What was different?

I think that there is the possibility of an answer. But the answer may mean that without change ourselves we will go the way of the church of the Middle East (I am of course talking generalisations – there are people coming to faith in the way of Jesus in the Middle East and there are some sizeable Christian communities still existing – e.g. Lebanon and Syria and Egypt. But these are under severe pressure and I believe that the Syrian church  is doomed if the opposition win (given a growing element of the opposition army is Islamist). Of course, the sizeable Christian community in Iraq has mainly fled after the ousting of Saddam Hussein.

So, back to my question – what is the key difference? I think that the answer is in institutional embeddness. What do I mean by that? I mean that the church too often looks to its leaders and social structures for its survival. It forms quite a specialised social group and is often more concerned with survival and maintenance than growth. As a member of the Church of England or the Baptist Church or the Roman Catholic Church we look to what our leaders are saying to us. As part of a collective we look to survive, to hang on, to protect what we have (however little it is). The picture at the top of the blog is in the Hagai Sophea in Istanbul. For a 1,000 years one of the leading Cathedrals in Christendom. When Constantinople fell to the Turks it was turned into a mosque for 500 years (it is now a museum). All its art was painted over.  Christianity clung to a social group, a people. It looked back to the days of yore (and still blames the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders for the final fall of the city). It clung to what was left to it and tried to preserve it. You can’t blame them.

But when all the Christian missionaries were thrown out of China and all the churches closed down and all the top leaders executed the chinese church didn’t try to cling on (though it must have felt like that). They reached out. They shared their faith with those around them. They gathered in small groups to share all they knew of Jesus (often they might only have a page of the bible). THEY DID NOT DEPEND ON EXPERTS OR A HIERARCHY  TO PROTECT THEM. They no longer existed. They could have given up but they didn’t.

So for us too in the west. I love the Church of England. I love its choral tradition an its great churches and cathedrals. It’s fusion of Catholic and Protestant. It’s ability to hold such a diverse group of people in the same church is truly a work of the Spirit. I am so glad I am an Anglican priest. I love the fact that the clergy and churches around us are so diverse (not everyone wants to worship like Springfield – A shock I know!)

But. If we depend on the institution to fulfil Christ’s mission then we are failing Christ. If we believe that someone other than ourselves will carry out Christ’s mission we are missing His call.  In the book of Esther when Mordecai tells Esther of the plot against the Jews she is reluctant to go to the King. He tells her this

If you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.

We all of us have a part to play in sharing the love of Jesus with all people. If we continue to rely on others – the vicar, the institution, whoever – then what has and is happening in the middle east – can happen with us – maybe not in our lifetime – but it is going in that direction. Jesus’s church will continue but the faith that once drove many to reform unjust laws in our country, that helped to introduce schooling and better working conditions will be sidelined.

Now this is why we are a cell group church and we have stripped away this year all the major things like Feast in the Field. If our cell groups don’t reach out with the love of Christ to those around them, if they don’t encourage and build one another up in faith to share the good news, if they aren’t expectant that the Holy Spirit wants to use them to share His message of love – then it won’t happen and we won’t see people coming to know Jesus. It is our small groups that can reach out and engage people from all different backgrounds and can leap the gaps between social classes and ethnic groups.

The difference is this. Institutional embeddness means that we hang on to the outward visible form of church. We play it safe, we don’t rock the boat. We help out in church but we don’t share our faith or take risks for Jesus. It means that when the government wants to reduce the role of the church further in society (as they will) we fight like mad for its privileges (many of them can be good ones). We will lose these battles one by one interspersed every now and again by holding on to something. But all our energies and emotions are focussed on maintaining what we have. But there is an alternative.

We have to decide. Do we wish to be like the Christians in the Middle East who under enormous pressure have hung on or migrated as they hung on to the institutional church or do we want to be like the early church or the church in China who under great pressure from their society knew the love of Jesus and at great risk shared that love and saw the church grow massively? The church won’t look the same – it won’t necessarily have the same status in society. But it will be reaching out in love and from a place of powerlessness it will care for the least and the last and the lost.

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5 comments on “Why has Christianity declined so much in the Middle East?

  1. Donna
    June 18, 2013 at 7:49 pm #

    Hi Will.
    I’m not sure if we’re supposed to speak while you’re on sabbatical, nomatter how wonderfully thought-provoking these reflections are (!) so I shall only and simply say – ‘Amen’.

    • Will Cookson
      June 18, 2013 at 7:57 pm #

      Hi Donna, of course you can! If I publish it then please feel to comment – always great to receive feedback!

  2. Chris Thomson
    June 18, 2013 at 11:04 pm #

    You’re on fire at the moment. Keep up the good work.

  3. Donna
    June 18, 2013 at 11:42 pm #

    Hi again Will,

    Well in that case….(I don’t take much encouragement to get talking –as you well know!)
    I’m so glad you’ve been able to go on sabbatical – you’re on fire! Your reflections are so gospel and so lucid.
    It strikes me that you could call this reflection ‘Clinging on or Reaching out?’ – this is the option that you have recognised we all face as the Church.
    A few things you’ve said that really stand out to me are these:
    “If we depend on the institution to fulfil Christ’s mission then we are failing Christ. If we believe that someone other than ourselves will carry out Christ’s mission we are missing His call.”
    “Institutional embeddness means that we hang on to the outward visible form of church. We play it safe, we don’t rock the boat. We help out in church but we don’t share our faith or take risks for Jesus.”
    “The church won’t look the same – it won’t necessarily have the same status in society. But it will be reaching out in love and from a place of powerlessness it will care for the least and the last and the lost.” – and surely this is the shape of Christ’s own ministry.
    I fear that one contributory factor to the situation you describe for the Church in the contemporary West is that we have neglected for so long to encourage our lay people in their vocations, in their ministries. During the training process for ordained ministry I was often asked to reflect on the big change I was making in transitioning into becoming a ‘public Christian’ – which always disturbed me, since what was I before ordination if not already a public Christian? But even more concerned that the Church acknowledged and apparently maintained this distinction.
    I was freshly struck recently reading 2 Cor 5 by Paul’s assertion that every Christian is an ambassador for Christ in the spirit of being a minister of reconciliation with the God-given responsibility to let the world know of the possibility of being reconciled to God (‘All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation: that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself…and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.’) There is such a colossal sense here of the call to mission on every Christian person (and community)– do we reflect that at all in the way we (I don’t mean Springfield, I mean Church-wide) disciple, teach and empower our congregations?
    I’m also increasingly concerned by the extent to which our way of living in the West literally consumes time – the sabbath, holy rest has almost disappeared, and I’m not sure we’ve recognised quite how dangerous this is as people find themselves absolutely robbed of the opportunity to rest from work (be it employment or social) and simply cherish being. Because that Being time is where the divine speaks easily. What I’m hearing almost constantly is that people are exhausted by life. And don’t we Christians believe in life before death? How do we get this sabbath-time back? I believe we can, but people may have to make brave choices and take a stand against the present-day silent persecution of having these opportunities stolen away by almost invisible encroachments. We have subtle enemies these days, fewer swords and shields. But we do have a choice – we can, as you say, refuse to settle with clinging on and, knowing ourselves to be ambassadors of Christ for the sake of the world God so loves, reach out instead.
    So, Amen brother!

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