One positive and one negative event and the lesson it teaches from the history of Christianity. How do they apply to God's mission today?
Sadly Tertullian's famous quote that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” is not always true. In fulfilling Christ's Great Commission, the apostles used not only the Roman roads to reach Europe with the gospel, but also the Silk roads to reach Asia and Africa. Tradition states that the apostle Thomas discipled Christians who reached Persia, Arabia, India, and China. Their efforts spawned the first Christian nation of Armenia, one of the first church buildings in Dura-Europa, and even a theological missionary school in Nisibis (Persia)! By 500 A.D. half of all Christians lived in the non-west, but trials and persecutions virtually wiped them from history.
Unlike the early illegal church that spread to new places under the persecution by the Jews and the Romans, the churches of Africa and Asia slowly shrank under a century long onslaught. With little to no assistance from abroad, the Eastern Christians were forced to hide, to convert, or to flee. Ultimately, this persecution didn't prune the church or scatter the seed of the gospel, but fueled by geo-political events it chopped the church to the ground and literally burned anything that remained. Since much of Africa's faith was cultural it converted to Islam, especially after the Donatist controversy. Christianity was pushed out of China by the Ming dynasty or was absorbed into Confucianism. The Turks, angered by the Crusades, defended Islam by crushing Christian “traitors” out of fear. In the end, the martyrs' blood didn't root.
As the church carries out the great commission, she must understand all the implications of persecution. Persecution can put the truth of the gospel in perspective for a church and even reveal it to outsiders, but without support from fellow churches, that church may cease to be. This should serve as a sobering reminder to help our persecuted brothers in Christ. It should also open our eyes to the fact that our faith isn't fireproof and fiery trials my test it one day.
Fortunately, the Kingdom of God always strikes back. History has shown that even if the flame of Christianity is removed from an area burning coals still remain. As the barbarians slowly picked “Christian” Rome apart during the 4th and 5th century (and again in the 7th - 10th century), a Socio-Religious decline developed into what is now known as the Dark Ages. God's written word was all but replaced with stories of the faith, which made challenging the pagan thought of barbarians difficult. However, the faithful continued the Great Commission. The Celts and other missionary monks proclaimed the gospel to Ireland and their neighbors with an evangelistic zeal that spread far beyond the British Isles. Through the priority of biblical and theological education (and the use of mass conversion methods), they battled folk theology and convinced the tribes of Christ's truth so that the gospel thrived in the lands of Europe once again.
Today, as Europe and the rest of the West seem to be giving up the Christian faith once again, we should learn from the monks who spent their lives evangelizing surrounding areas. We need to remember the power of the gospel message through the primacy of scripture, and educate our local communities on Christ's sacrifice. However, just as monasticism was a fairly new movement when it reclaimed Europe, new movements that contextualize the gospel to new cultures will look different. Thus, we need to recognize the idea that “only the strongest faiths survive” is Darwinian Theology, and be slow to condemn knowing that the Gospel never dies.
Even if in God's sovereignty, the faith is pushed from the lands, we should take comfort in the fact that the gospel will return under subsequent generations. Even the flames from lost Christianities in Asia and Africa are once again racing through China, Africa, and Muslim nations as hundreds of thousands of people find Christ each year after centuries of spiritual silence and rebuff. This is modern proof that God breathes new life into the embers of old.