O Little Town of Nicaea.
Walls were splattered with graffiti, pamphlets inflamed passions, and lawsuits were being filed right and left. The early church was threatened with a schism over one apparently simple question: in what way is Jesus divine?1 Hoping to calm the gathering storm, the Emperor Constantine convened a council in 325 at his private lakeside palace near Nicaea. Eastern and Western bishops gathered and drafted a response that was approved at the Council of Constantinople in 381. Today the Nicene Creed is one of the most widely accepted creeds of the Christian faith. Yet the story of what happened years later at Nicaea might be just as instructive for the church today.
Between 622 and 634, the first wave of Islamic conquest under Muhammad and Abu Bakr overwhelmed Persian armies and seized Babylonia, Susiana, Mespotamia, Armenai, and Persia.2 To give you an idea of the scale of slaughter, “the whole Gaza region up to Caesarea was sacked and devastated in the campaign of 634. Four thousand Jewish, Christian and Samaritan peasants who defended their lands were massacred.”3
In the next wave under Umar and Utman (634-656), Islam spread into Greece and North Africa. Tripoli was ransacked in 643. Carthage was razed to the ground and most of its inhabitants slaughtered. This is why most Muslims in modern North Africa are descendents of once-Christian families. Chronicles from that period report entire regions ravaged, villages razed to the ground, towns burned, pillaged and destroyed. The men were slaughtered or enslaved. Women met the same fate after first suffering rape. Children were deported as Muslim slaves. It was during this wave that the little town of Nicaea was completely wiped out, erasing its Christian heritage.
Philip Jenkins, distinguished professor of religious studies and history at Penn State University, says we regularly read accounts of the planting and growth of churches. But he asks, “How many know accounts of the decline or extinction of Christian communities or institutions?”4 Jenkins believes this story is “unsettling” for most Christians and one of the “least studied facts” of church history. Why do we ignore periods of decline?
First, it allows us to remain in denial about our current decline. Some of us sound like the imaginary reporter who filed this headline on April 15, 1912: “Over 700 Happy Passengers Disembark in New York After Maiden Voyage of Titanic.” Very few of the growing churches in America acknowledge the dozens of nearby ones being drained of congregants. We prefer heart-warming anecdotes to hard-nosed analysis of what’s happening on a larger scale. Most churches grow by people transferring from other churches rather than new people coming to faith.5 As a result, we’re declining as a percentage of the American population and “the influence of Christianity on the life and mores of our society is on the wane. And the decline is likely to continue.”6
Second, some of us are indicted by this decline. Evangelicalism as a system is perfectly designed to yield the decline we’re experiencing. Many of us inherited our views of Christ and church from European ancestors. While this system has some merit, “Christians of European descent should learn that they are not necessarily the norm within the Christian tradition, still less the authentic core; nor, perhaps, have they ever been,” writes Jenkins.7 Now that’s a harrowing idea – our Western religious language and practices might be more of a historical aberration than authentic Christianity.
This decline has implications for world missions. A friend of mine recently returned from Africa with glowing reports of booming churches. His story was juxtaposed with empty English cathedrals they visited on the way home during a layover in London. His headline: “God is doing great things in the Southern Hemisphere while Europe has grown cold.” But if the “dechristianizing” tsunami that decimated European Christianity and is clobbering the United States is headed toward the Southern Hemisphere, we’re in trouble.
The rock band Chicago once asked whether anyone really knows what time it is. No one has a crystal ball, yet the Sons of Issachar “understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do.”8 Do we know the times? Charles Taylor says we’ve entered a “secular age.”9 Philip Rieff calls our age a “deathwork” that denies an absolute morality and makes it increasingly impossible to say, “Thou shalt not.”10 Christianity also faces a resurgent Islam. The Economist reports that in 2007 the most popular name for newborn boys in England was Jack. The second was Mohammed. The point is the decline or extinction of Christian communities is not unprecedented. Unless we pay closer attention to ancient churches that rekindled the flames, we might also gutter out entirely.
1 John Anthony McGuckin, “The Road to Nicaea,” Christian History & Biography, Issue 85, Winter 2005, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, p.18
2 Bat Ye’or, The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude (Madison: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996), p.43
4 Philip Jenkins, “Companions of Life: What Must We learn, and Unlearn?” Books and Culture, March/April 2007, Volume 13, No. 2, pp.18-20
5 William Chadwick, Stealing Sheep: The Hidden Problems of Transfer Growth (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2001).
6 “The Church as Culture,” p. 2, by Robert Louis Wilken, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia. The original version of this article was delivered as the Palmer Lecture at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey.
7 Jenkins, “Companions”
8 I Chronicles 12:32
9 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University press, 2007)
10 Philip Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority, Kenneth S. Piver, General Editor, Volume I, Sacred Order/Social Order (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006)