Local, Gritty, and Enduring?

The home of Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine, the history of the early church in North Africa is formative and rich, and continues to teach many lessons. One lesson is the necessity of the indigenization of the faith everywhere the gospel is preached. That includes the communities where we live and work and worship. Maybe I'm wrong about this, but it seems to me that many of us like the romantic idea better than the gritty reality. If, however, we are to build up a church that is able to endure in a hostile culture and withstand systematic persecution then it must be a church that succeeds in reaching the relatively unglamorous and immobile local populations in every place, and doing so always seems to involve a great deal of gritty ministry.

Of course we have very good reasons to evangelize all kinds and classes of people. My point is not that we should evangelize the unglamorous or even why we should do so, but about the sometimes hard-to-spot weakness of any church or mission that fails to do so or is content to only tackle acts of kindness among the poor (crashing communities to fix buildings or teeth and the like, as good and helpful as those sorts of things are when done well).

I mentioned a few posts ago that I had been reading The Lost History of Christianity, by Philip Jenkins, about the long run of Christianity in Africa and Asia. Late in that work he attempts to answer the question of why some Christian communities endured for centuries under intense Islamic pressure (such as the Copts of Egypt) while others collapsed in a generation or two (as happened in Roman Africa - today's Tunisia and Algeria). There are many factors. Some historians point to shifting patterns of trade and settlement prior to the Islamic invasions and others to the "appalling sectarian divisions" that existed. But North Africa was not unique or so different from Egypt or elsewhere on either count.

Jenkins points us to a different factor:

Where the African church failed was in not carrying Christianity beyond the Romanized inhabitants of the cities and the great estates, and not sinking roots into the world of the native peoples. . . . [T]he African church had made next to no progress in taking the faith to the villages and the neighboring tribes, nor, critically, had they tried to evangelize in local languages (229-30).

Whether that mission simply fell short or was never attempted, the gritty work of indigenization never occurred. It "would not have been an unrealistic expectation," Jenkins argues, citing examples of such progress in other places. Yet,

Christianity in this region remained as much a colonists' religion as it would be once again during the French Empire of the twentieth century, and, just as in that later period, when the colonists left, so did the religion (230).

It's tempting to speculate on what might have been had the local peoples in Roman Africa been as thoroughly evangelized as the Egyptians. After the very rapid Islamic conquests in Egypt and North Africa in the 600s, Christianity remained the majority religion in Egypt for centuries. (Even today, about 10% of Egyptians identify as Copts.) What if that had been true all the way to Morocco? But speculation of this kind is pointless.

What is not pointless are the lessons to be drawn for the work of the ministry today. It is obvious, for example, that the indigenization of Christianity among the Romans of North Africa was quite successful, endured difficult times, and even produced great teachers of the faith. This is exactly why the collapse of Christianity there is so stunning. What we seem to miss is that the North African church was not a church of native North Africans but of Romans in North Africa.

Whether it was a good thing for Romans to be in North Africa I don't know, but the evangelization of Romans in North Africa surely was - not only for them but for the church ever since. But it reminds us that just because a church exists and may even be thriving in one place or another does not mean it is a church of the people in that place. And if it's not, it may be ready to disappear from that place altogether, as so many crumbling and re-purposed church buildings seem to silently testify in the city where I presently live.