Recent research tests the most famous adage about the persecuted church.
ICC Note: Research on the growth of the church around the world looks at persecution and church growth. The numbers are unclear in demonstrating that persecution leads to numerical church growth, but it has other impacts on the church as well.
12/04/2014 Middle East (Christianity Today) The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Steve Green made it the chorus of “The Faithful,” the CCM singer-songwriter’s 1998 ode to persecuted Christians. But is it true?
In Carthage, North Africa, early church theologian Tertullian argued that persecution actually strengthens the church; as martyrs bravely die for the faith, onlookers convert. Some 1,800 years later, restrictions on religion are stronger than ever. According to the Pew Research Center, 74 percent of the world’s population live in a country where social hostilities involving religion are high, and 64 percent live where government restrictions on religion are high. Does this explain why Christianity is likewise growing worldwide?
Not necessarily, says missiologist Justin Long, who recently compared Pew’s latest tally of religious freedom restrictions to Operation World’s latest tally of Christian growth (see chart). His conclusion: Church growth is “not strongly” correlated with either governmental or societal persecution. However, Christianity “tends loosely” to change more rapidly (grow or shrink) when governmental restriction is high, and stays relatively stable when such pressure is low.
History offers a “truly mixed record,” said William Inboden, a Texas scholar affiliated with Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project. “Even though Christ gives the Great Commission before his Ascension, it almost takes the initial outbreak of persecution [in Acts] to spread the gospel,” he said. But within 1,000 years, the once “largely Christian lands” of the Middle East and North Africa became overwhelmingly Muslim, he notes. Now their remnant Christian communities are “being driven to extinction.”
One reason the data and history are messy: Church growth or decline is not due exclusively to conversions, said Albert W. Hickman of Gordon-Conwell’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity. Migration, births, and deaths also matter. Such factors are at play in Long’s list of countries boasting both high persecution and high growth: Syria, which hosts thousands of Iraqi refugees; Iran, where increasing numbers of Muslims have converted to Christianity; and Afghanistan, where high birth rates account for more than two-thirds of Christian growth, according to Hickman.
Long believes persecution initially harms churches because it interrupts networks and prompts emigration. But given that “in times of persecution, people choose what they believe and refine their faith,” he said, persecution can boost church numbers once suffering has ended.