Nothing teaches more about the present than a proper understanding of the past.Philip Jenkins demonstrates this in an exceptionally fine study titled The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia-and How it Died.
Jenkins notes before there was an archbishop in Canterbury, England, churches were operating in Sri Lanka, India, China; and large Christian centers existed in Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. Long before churches dotted Europe’s landscape, Ethiopia was home to a vast number of congregations. When Europeans discovered Ethiopia in the 17th Century, they were astounded by the number of churches they found. One traveler wrote: “No country in the world is so full of churches, monasteries and ecclesiastics as Abyssinia (Ethiopia); it is not possible to sing in one church without being heard by another, and perhaps by several.”
Jenkins reveals a time when the two great centers of Christianity were Constantinople and Baghdad, with Baghdad’s leader wielding greater influence than the Roman Pope! Sadaam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, Iraq once contained the headquarters of a large group of churches that spread throughout the East. The prospect of a non-Christian or post-Christian Syria or Persia seemed inconceivable to Christians who lived in lands that stood at the heart of the faith.
But Jenkins’s book not only documents the once-great influence of the Eastern Churches, he describes their disappearance and death. For example, have you wondered what happened to the church in Ephesus, which was founded by the Apostle Paul and later led by Timothy and John? The Ephesian church persisted for more than 1,200 years when in 1304 Turkish forces obliterated the city and killed or deported all Christians. In 1340, when a Christian priest arrived in Ephesus, the first to enter the city in 35 years, he operated not from the historic cathedral, but from the cheap lodgings of an old Turkish woman. By 1387, the few believers who remained were too weak to carry on. The church in Ephesus died.
Jenkins then makes a statement I find striking. He writes, “At least as far as particular regions or continents are concerned, Christianity does not come with a warranty.” Viewed over the 2,000-year span of Christian history, this is a profound observation. Obviously the churches of the East encountered challenges few of us could imagine. But even a survey of Christian history in America over the past 50 years reveals that churches do not come with a warranty. No church that led in reaching lost people 50 years ago would be included in the list that lead the way in reaching the lost today.
In Oklahoma, some of the most effective evangelistic churches didn’t even exist 20 years ago. Yes, we do have effective evangelistic churches whose founding precedes statehood. But past glory is no guarantee of present effectiveness, and for too many, the glory days are long past as evidenced by a steep decline in baptisms. The honest truth is churches sometimes lose their way, forgetting that engaging the lost and loving the lost people of their community provide meaning to their existence. Recently I was in a church located in a community with 25 houses. Every week, they have 30 or more people visiting the lost and ministering to people all over the region, and for more than a decade, they have baptized more than 50 people annually. I was also in a city with more than 40,000 people. In that community, all of the Baptist churches combined baptize fewer than 100 people.
One member of that country church may have put his finger on a primary reason for their effectiveness. He said, “We work. We know people won’t just wander into our building, so we probably work harder than most.” It reminds me of what an early missionary to the Native Americans said: “We must not sit still, and look for miracles; up and be doing, and the Lord will be with thee. Prayer and Pains, through faith in Jesus Christ, will do anything” (John Elliot). Prayer, pain, and faith-that sounds like a formula that the Lord of the Harvest might just choose to bless.