The Lost History of Christianity

One of my favourite authors in recent years has been Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State University. During my time at Westminster Seminary, we were able to welcome this genial Welsh academic to the campus to talk about the expansion of world Christianity and the key features of Christianity in the global south and east, based on his research as published in The Next Christendom (2002) and The New Faces of Christianity (2006). His most recent offering, The Lost History of Christianity, tells an interesting and surprising story.

As the cover notes point out, most Christians think of Christianity as a Western faith which grew out of its origins in the Middle East towards Rome and into Europe, paving the way for the Enlightenment, science and modernity. Jenkins reveals that the largest and most influential churches of Christianity’s youth lay to the east of Rome, covered the world from North Africa to China, ruled the Middle East, and only expired after a thousand year reign after Constantine. The story he tells is not only how these churches were the dominant expression of Christianity for its first millenium, but how they became extinct.

Only very recently, in historical terms, Christians were quite as familiar a part of the Middle Eastern scene as Jews are in the modern United States, or indeed Muslims in contemporary western Europe. Middle Eastern Christians in 1900 actually represented a much larger part of the overall population (some 11 percent) than do American Jews today (2 percent) or European Muslims (4.5 percent). the removal or destruction of that community represented a historic transformation for the region, no less than for the Christian world. p141.

Jenkins describes how the decline of Christianity in the Near East occurred in two distinct phases. In the first phase of decline, during the Middle Ages, Christians lost their majority status within what became Muslim-majority nations. The Syriac sects suffered worst of all and the Copts least. But as minorities they proved to be very durable. In the second phase, which is barely a century old, Christians as organised communities are ceasing to exist altogether. In both phases, the largest single reason for decline was organised violence, whether in the form of massacre, expulsion or forced migration.

One of the most dramatic declines has taken place within Iraq. In 1970, Christians represented 5 or 6 percent of the population. The number is now around 1 percent and is shrinking fast. Christians in the 1980s reportedly made up 20 percent of Iraq’s teachers and many of its doctors and engineers. Two wars, one in the 1980s against Iran and one in 1990-91 against the U.S.-led coalition, devastated the country’s economy. Everyone who could leave easily did so, particularly the professional groups among whom Christians were well-represented. In the anarchy which followed the second invasion in 2003, Christians became the primary targets of mobs and militias, and were regularly kidnapped.

When Pope Benedict gave his controversial address in Regensburg in 2006, the “Lions of Islam” retaliated by beheading a Mosul priest, Paulos Iksander. Father Paulos belonged to the Syrian Orthodox Church, the denomination anciently known as Jacobites. In 2008, Islamists murdered Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, head of the Chaldean church in northern Iraq. Between 2003 and 2007, two-thirds of Iraq’s remaining Christians left the country.

Jenkins believes that the most vulnerable groups are those in Syria which has become the refuge for thousands of exiled Middle Eastern Christians. Yet a change of regime there could have a dreadful effect on minorities. If Egypt found itself under an Islamist regime, it would drive the remaining Copts to choose between mass migration and conversion.

Jenkins concludes:

Middle Eastern Christianity will not become extinct in the same way that animal or plant species vanish, with no representatives left to carry on the line and no hope of revival. Even in the worst-case scenario, a few families, a few old believers, will linger on for the decades to come. Millions of people from the region will also continue the tradition elsewhere. For practical purposes, however, Middle Eastern Christianity has, within living memory, all but disappeared as a living force. p172

The main point of the book is that Christians need to learn important lessons not only from the triumphs and expansion of the faith, but also by acknowledging the defeats and disasters.

Losing the ancient churches is one thing, but losing their memory and experience so utterly is a disaster scarcely less damaging…we need to recover those memories, to restore that history. p262

Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity (Oxford, Lion, 2008).

New Assistant

Alastair, Judith and baby Philippa

With moderatorial responsibilities getting near, the Presbytery of Armagh inducted a new assistant in our congregation on Wednesday 1 April. Alastair J. Dunlop is a graduate of St Andrews University and Regent College, Vancouver. He has served as assistant minister in First Presbyterian Church, Antrim, and then as assistant in Harryville, Ballymena during Dr John Finlay’s moderatorial year. At his induction service, my two chaplains, Rev Philip McConnell of Waringstown and Rev Nigel McCullough of Hill Street, Lurgan, took part, along with the Moderator and Clerk of the Armagh presbytery, Rev Donald Byers and Rev Colin Harris.

At the reception following the service, all kinds of connections were made, indicating what a small and closely related denomination we belong to. I was an assistant in Harryville in 1981, the year our eldest daughter, Sara, was born, and the great summer when England won the Ashes series against Australia. Will we ever forget the performances of Botham and Willis? The big question is: Can England do it again in 2009?

It was great to see all the friends from Harryville in Portadown, not least their minister, Dr John Finlay, whose father, Bert, was a much loved lay assistant in First Portadown during Dr Craig’s ministry, and whose son, John Junior, is the youngest elder on the First Portadown Session and serves alongside his uncle, Rea.

I have known Alastair all his life. His father , Alastair Senior, was Patricia’s minister in First Portglenone, and has been one of my best friends since those days. Alastair Junior was born in 1977, the same year that Patricia and I were married. Incredible as it may seem now, he was a sick baby, and his mother, Anne, left him for the first time when he was six months old in order to attend our wedding.

There is also the St Andrews University connection and that whole network of friends that includes our daughter, Sara, Alastair and Judith, Jonny and Laura McGreevy, Stuart and Julianne Noble, etc. Are you one of them? Am I just imagining it, but was that Ulster Christian mafia at St Andrews in the 1990s and early 2000s a particularly gifted generation? Or did they just inherit it all from the previous generation that never made it across the North Channel?

The connections theme was well and truly underscored by Dr Craig, our Minister Emeritus, in his remarks, as he recalled his friendship with Alastair’s great-grandfather, Hugh Dunlop, an elder in Wellington Street, Ballymena, and Alastair’s two grandfathers, Rev Dr James Dunlop of Oldpark,and Mr William J. Morgan, a Member of the old Stormont parliament and a cabinet minister in the government there. Dr Craig described Dr James Dunlop as providing the model of ministry that he had sought to follow in his 36 years in First Portadown.

What impressed me was not only the connections, but also how, in the providence of God, the baton of Christian ministry is passed from one generation to the next and the kingdom of God continues to advance. As Alastair assumes responsibilities in First Portadown, we pray that God will grant him a fruitful ministry.

Thomas Street Baptist Farewell

img_00532My Baptist colleague in Portadown, Pastor Clifford Morrison, has resigned from the pastorate in Portadown in order to take up a new charge in Carr Baptist Church. Clifford and his wife Margaret have served Thomas Street Baptist Church in Portadown for over 24 years. The picture shows Clifford and Margaret, along with the congregation’s two elders, Carl Sands and Raymond Pollock and their wives at the farewell service. It was a great evening of fellowship and thanksgiving, when a number of people expressed their appreciation for Clifford’s ministry in Portadown.  I was particularly pleased to be included in the service since Clifford had shown me such friendship when I arrived in Portadown. My Baptist brothers and sisters welcomed us so warmly. And the highlight of the supper afterwards was the rhubarb tart…simply delicious!

Two things struck me as I sat through the service. I was reminded of the sentiment expressed by the late Edmund Clowney of how wonderful it would be if those of us within the Reformed family could resolve our differences on the issue of baptism. In terms of soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) we are totally agreed that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, and is in Christ alone. The differences emerge in terms of ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) and with regard to those whom we consider to be members of the church. Does the covenant of grace embrace believers only, or does it reach to their children? Did Christ ever intend us to come to such different answers to that question? In an increasingly secular community, we need to affirm what we share and believe in terms of the Gospel, rather than emphasising the issues on which we disagree. Let true biblical ecumenism flourish!

I was also thinking that 25 year ministries like Clifford’s are becoming less common. Many pastors starting out in the ministry “blow up” in the first five years, and others “burn out” before they have reached the twenty year mark. The attitudes, character and skills needed to survive in the ministry over the long haul are considerable. Leading and pastoring a Christian congregation can be a challenging and bruising activity, especially when contemporary Christians have such high expectations in terms of worship, preaching, church programmes and pastoral care. It seems that congregations of fifty years ago were less demanding, and had a lifetime commitment to a local church. There is a greater readiness today to change churches with the result that pastors are under pressure to be “successful” in terms of numbers, facilities and finances. And “unsuccessful” pastors feel the pressure to move on or even to resign completely from the ministry. If healthy churches are pastored by healthy ministers, then the church needs to pray and work so that there is a steady supply of suitably qualified and gifted ministers who can minister and serve Christ and his Church for a lifetime.

Mayoral hospitality

img_00461This week, Patricia and I, along with members of the pastoral team in First Portadown, were invited to the Civic Centre in Craigavon to have lunch with the mayor, Alderman Sydney Anderson, and his wife, Brenda. It was an absolutely delightful occasion. The mayor received us very warmly and entertained us to a beautiful lunch. Patricia said it was one of the nicest pavlovas she had ever tasted, and that was high recommendation as she is a bit of a connoisseur in that department. I opted for the apple tart, but only after filling up on some absolutely wonderful potato wedges. Margaret, the in-house chef at the Civic Centre, certainly knows her job and does it well.

We were all impressed how well Mr Mayor had done his homework on the work and ministry of our congregation. He was most generous in his praise, as he offered sincere congratulations on the moderatorial nomination. We counted ourselves greatly honoured to be received so royally. A tour of the refurbished Civic Centre gave us an insight into the work of our local council and a greater appreciation for the commitment of our local representatives. The council faces many difficult decisions and it needs our support and prayers as it seeks to serve the needs of everyone in our community. The Review of Public Administration will bring many changes to local government, and we trust that the excellent facilities of our Civic Centre will be well used in any new arrangements.

Our vertically-challenged caretaker, Cecil, was with us. Is there anybody in Craigavon or Portadown that he doesn’t know? Everywhere we went at the Civic Centre he greeted people as long-lost friends, and brought laughter and fun to all the proceedings. It was a most enjoyable visit. Thank you, Mr Mayor!

To blog or not to blog

I read this piece on the Desiring God website, written by Abraham Piper, and it got me thinking. There are advantages to blogging which may enhance pastoral ministry, but is revealing the details of my life one of them? I don’t think so. I don’t think that I am all that interesting. Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones advised preachers not to talk about themselves in the pulpit. He pointed out that congregations often encourage preachers to talk about themselves, but he believed that this temptation should be resisted. In his own ministry, even though he was well qualified as a physician, he refused to comment on medical matters from the pulpit lest it drew attention to himself and distracted people from his main task.

While the advice offered here is generally useful, a highly personal blog may actually be detrimental. As one famous contemporary Reformed preacher is known to say to his congregation, “If you knew all the details of my sinful heart, you wouldn’t want to listen to me preach!” To which he quickly added, “And if I knew all the details of your sinful hearts, I wouldn’t want to enter the building to preach to you!”

With that understanding, I am going to attempt to blog.

Pastors should blog…

For most of you, anything you post online will only be a small piece in the grand scheme of your pastoral leadership. But if you can maintain a blog that is both compelling and personal, it can be an important small piece.

It will give you access to your people’s minds and hearts in a unique way by giving them a chance to know you as a well-rounded person. You will no longer be only a preacher and a teacher, but also a guy who had a hard time putting together a swing-set for his kids last weekend. People will open up for you as you open up like this for them. Letting people catch an honest glimpse of your life will add authenticity to your teaching and depth to your ministry.

1. …to write.

If you’re a pastor, you probably already know the value writing has for thinking. Through writing, you delve into new ideas and new insights. If you strive to write well, you will at the same time be striving to think well.

Then when you share new ideas and new insights, readers can come along with you wherever your good writing and good thinking bring you.

There is no better way to simply and quickly share your writing than by maintaining a blog. And if you’re serious about your blog, it will help you not only in your thinking, but in your discipline as well, as people begin to regularly expect quality insight from you.

2. …to teach.

Most pastors I’ve run into love to talk. Many of them laugh at themselves about how long-winded they’re sometimes tempted to be.

Enter Blog.

Here is where a pastor has an outlet for whatever he didn’t get to say on Sunday. Your blog is where you can pass on that perfect analogy you only just thought of; that hilarious yet meaningful story you couldn’t connect to your text no matter how hard you tried; that last point you skipped over even though you needed it to complete your 8-point acrostic sermon that almost spelled HUMILITY.

And more than just a catch-all for sermon spill-over, a blog is a perfect place for those 30-second nuggets of truth that come in your devotions or while you’re reading the newspaper. You may never write a full-fledged article about these brief insights or preach a whole sermon, but via your blog, your people can still learn from them just like you did.

3. …to recommend.

With every counseling session or after-service conversation, a pastor is recommending something. Sometimes it’s a book or a charity. Maybe it’s a bed-and-breakfast for that couple he can tell really needs to get away. And sometimes it’s simply Jesus.

With a blog, you can recommend something to hundreds of people instead of just a few. Some recommendations may be specific to certain people, but that seems like it would be rare. It’s more likely to be the case that if one man asks you whether you know of any good help for a pornography addiction, then dozens of other men out there also need to know, but aren’t asking.

Blog it.

Recommendation, however, is more than pointing people to helpful things. It’s a tone of voice, an overall aura that good blogs cultivate.

Blogs are not generally good places to be didactic. Rather, they’re ideal for suggesting and commending. I’ve learned, after I write, to go back and cut those lines that sound like commands or even overbearing suggestions, no matter how right they may be. Because if it’s true for my audience, it’s true for me, so why not word it in such a way that I’m the weak one, rather than them?

People want to know that their pastor knows he is an ordinary, imperfect human being. They want to know that you’re recommending things that have helped you in your own weakness. If you say, “When I struggled with weight-loss, I did such-and-such,” it will come across very differently than if you say, “Do such-and-such if you’re over-weight…”

If you use your blog to encourage people through suggesting and commending everything from local restaurants to Jesus Christ, it will complement the biblical authority that you rightly assume when you stand behind the pulpit.

4. …to interact.

There are a lot of ways for a pastor to keep his finger on the pulse of his people. A blog is by no means necessary in this regard. However, it does add a helpful new way to stay abreast of people’s opinions and questions.

Who knows what sermon series might arise after a pastor hears some surprising feedback about one of his 30-second-nuggets-of-truth?

5. …to develop an eye for what is meaningful.

For good or ill, most committed bloggers live with the constant question in their mind: Is this bloggable? This could become a neurosis, but I’ll put a positive spin on it: It nurtures a habit of looking for insight and wisdom and value in every situation, no matter how mundane.

If you live life looking for what is worthwhile in every little thing, you will see more of what God has to teach you. And the more he teaches you, the more you can teach others. As you begin to be inspired and to collect ideas, you will find that the new things you’ve seen and learned enrich far more of your life than just your blog.

6. …to be known.

This is where I see the greatest advantage for blogging pastors.

Your people hear you teach a lot; it’s probably the main way that most of them know you. You preach on Sundays, teach on Wednesdays, give messages at weddings, funerals, youth events, retreats, etc.

This is good—it’s your job. But it’s not all you are. Not that you need to be told this, but you are far more than your ideas. Ideas are a crucial part of your identity, but still just a part.

You’re a husband and a father. You’re some people’s friend and other people’s enemy. Maybe you love the Nittany Lions. Maybe you hate fruity salad. Maybe you struggle to pray. Maybe listening to the kids’ choir last weekend was—to your surprise—the most moving worship experience you’ve ever had.

These are the things that make you the man that leads your church. They’re the windows into your personality that perhaps stay shuttered when you’re teaching the Bible. Sometimes your people need to look in—not all the way in, and not into every room—but your people need some access to you as a person. A blog is one way to help them.

You can’t be everybody’s friend, and keeping a blog is not a way of pretending that you can. It’s simply a way for your people to know you as a human being, even if you can’t know them back. This is valuable, not because you’re so extraordinary, but because leadership is more than the words you say. If you practice the kind of holiness that your people expect of you, then your life itself opened before them is good leadership—even when you fail.