PERSECUTION & A Good Measure? Thoughts on Analyzing the Persecuted Church

by KAREN ELLIS, Reformed African American Network, 11/16/14

Last week, 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 in A.D. 197 by the early church father Tertullian. 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 government. 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 We place a measure of trust in anecdotal evidence due to both biblical accounts and historical documents that report the early church grew rapidly under persecution (Acts 8). 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 word “church” in the phrase, “church growth,” so I purchased the expanded research to find some definition. While the study gave definition to how persecution was measured, the word “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…

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