A Good Measure? Thoughts on Analyzing the Persecuted Church

A colleague asked for my thoughts on a recent study on how the persecution of Christians relates to church growth.  The study compared the data of two unrelated studies from two separate and well-respected research organizations, Pew Research and Operation World, formed into a third study by an independent researcher.

The study asked “is there a correlation between the persecution of Christians and church growth?”  The question is a fair one, as it’s commonly accepted that a correlation exists. The study concluded that “there is no strong correlation between the two.” That is, according to this study, there’s no perceptible evidence today that churches grow any more quickly under persecution than in places where there is religious freedom.

The conclusion that there is “no strong correlation between persecution and church growth” challenges centuries of Christian thought.

“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” has been a rallying cry for centuries, originally penned by the early church father Tertullian in 197AD. Tertullian wrote in response to the church’s struggles at a specific time in its history, as false charges and deleterious actions were leveled against the Christians by the state. In chapter 50 of The Apology of Tertullian for the Christians, he writes:

“But pursue your course, excellent governors, and you will be more popular with the multitude if you sacrifice the Christians to their wishes. Crucify, torture, condemn, crush us. For the proof of our innocence is found in your injustice. It is on this account that God suffers us to suffer this. […] Yet no cruelty of yours, though each were to exceed the last in its exquisite refinement, profits you in the least, but forms rather an attraction to our sect. We spring up in greater numbers as often as we are mown down by you: the blood of the Christians is a ‘source of new life’ (in other translations, ‘a seed’).”

The narrative that a region under persecution is experiencing “rapid growth” is often based on anecdotal (or oral) reports, which can be time consuming to gather and quantify. We place a measure of trust in anecdotal evidence due to both biblical accounts and historical documents that report the early church grew rapidly under persecution. These provide us with a model established by the early church that most Christians accept as historical fact, but does a model necessarily constitute a pattern? Due to the nature of the church itself, it’s difficult to tell.

I was curious to see how the original researchers defined the “church” in “church growth,” so I purchased the expanded research to find some definition. While the study gave definition to how persecution was measured, “church” remained undefined. Unfortunately, no links to original data were provided in the report.

That being said, is it possible to accurately measure a subjective spiritual phenomenon – such as the correlation of the growth of the church under persecution – with an objective diagnostic tool? In studying the persecuted church, quantitative studies have their limitations, and qualitative data (such as narrative reports) becomes valuable.

That Which is Unseen

This particular study doesn’t seem to account for the distinction between the visible church and the invisible church. The latter is far more elusive than the former, hidden from census takers. Statistical data rests on a measure of certainty with regard to indisputable facts; so while we may be able to make some general measurements, ultimately we cannot know with numeric exactitude how the Spirit of God is moving in churches, regions, cultures and individual hearts.

This reality makes it both difficult and risky to make declarative statements as to how persecution may or may not be affecting the church. The visible church is static and numerable; the invisible church is a fluid organism – both in regions where there is freedom, and in those where there is none. While measuring church growth may be a helpful tool for church planters, drawing sharp conclusions beyond basic patterns presents us with far more muddy waters to navigate.

When we speak of the growth of globally visible churches and the individuals that constitute them, we must also consider what we’re inadvertently implying about the invisible church. Further, because the visible church may be flourishing in some places and stagnating in others, should we assume from this data that the invisible church is following the same pattern? No clarifying information is given in the expanded version of the study, so we can’t be certain that the two original organizations even had such a correlation in mind when they independently conducted their research.

The “visible/invisible church distinction” is significant for both theological and teleological reasons. Those who work on behalf of the persecuted church grow concerned when sweeping conclusions are drawn from a lack of analytical precision. Grand declarations have the potential to rob Christian suffering of its full meaning for the global Christian community. If the suffering of innocents does not build the Kingdom of God, what then is its purpose? Scripture tells us that there are different types of suffering, with varied purposes such as so that we can comfort others as they suffer, to be conformed to Christ’s likeness and know a measure of His sufferings, to deny self for Christ’s sake, to display the glory of God, or to trust divine strength over human, to name just a few. However the fullness of suffering for righteousness’ sake is much more robust than any one of its singular aspects; it also has a redemptive dimension that cannot be ignored.

Christ did not suffer publicly for His own benefit, but chose to do so for a humanity alienated from God. This included many who, in their hostility toward Christ, rejected Him and His message. His suffering on the cross served to accomplish redemption, but it also served a redemptive purpose as a powerful witness to both Who He is, and what He came to do. So it is with Christians following after His pattern, who suffer in this life with anticipation of their vindication and glorification in the world to come.[1] We do well to guard against diminishing any single aspect of what it means to “suffer for righteousness’ sake.”

The full study offers some helpful thoughts on the purification of the church through suffering (that persecution purifies and intensifies, increasing the quality of the church if not, in the study’s estimation, its quantity), on dynamics of how the church expands through social networks and hubs, and how visible church growth is both helped and hindered by persecution and the martyrdom of saints. However, God’s use of human testimony in expanding his Kingdom is a grace – not a given. Growth can, and does occur in places where there is no visible church; and while it is an honor to be used by God to bear witness to His transformative power, God’s very character reminds us that He is not dependent on human effort to expand His church.[2]

Why We Fight

The expanded study concludes with this statement:

“In fact, it appears from the data that the most potent form of persecution is a moderate level of freedom, a general idea that any church plant must be highly organized, well-funded and public, and significant regulations on churches. This preserves freedom while raising the bar for would-be church planters to something most won’t jump over.”

Due to man’s fallen nature, no culture in history has applied religious freedom perfectly, though some have come closer than others. We know from the Old Testament record of the unfortunate fate of societies that oppress the people of God. Should Christians strive for religious freedom (and work against religious persecution) because it provides the “best conditions for visible church growth?” Or should we do so, rather, because each person is made in the image of God and this transcendent truth demands that one be allowed to follow and worship the Christ freely, without punishment, violation or interference from temporal sources? Both religious freedom and religious persecution are man-made categories that God, in His sovereignty, uses to expand His Kingdom. Ultimately, we strive for religious freedom for transcendent reasons, not temporal ones, understanding that the temporal will benefit in the process.

Our finite minds love to order and categorize, to make sense of the world around us. Statistics are often helpful in accomplishing this goal, but statistics have their limitations and some phenomena will not be subjected to analysis and human declarations, despite our best efforts and training. Our sociology must always be in service to our theology, and we must be careful to admit the limitations of our own understanding.

[1] Matthew 19:29, Romans 8:17, 1 Peter 5:10, Revelation 2:10, 6:10-11, 12:11-12

[2] Acts 17:24, Isaiah 66:1, Lamentations 5:19, Ephesians 1:11, Daniel 4:35, Romans 9:19-21, Job 42:2, Isaiah 43:13, Psalm 29:10, Psalm 47:2, Jeremiah 10:7, Zechariah 14:9, 1 Timothy 1:17, Proverbs 16:9, Psalm 115:3, Psalm 135:6, Isaiah 46:10…

This post originally appeared at The Reformed African American Network.

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