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Do Christians need a theology of retreat?

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/10/2009 (2729 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

What happened to the Jews of Scottdale?

That was the question on my mind last month when I visited that southwest Pennsylvania town. While driving to a friend's house, I came across an old synagogue on his residential street. The building is now a private home, but its previous use is plain to see; stencilled into the brick above the door are the words: "Beth Shalom."

Since my friend knew nothing about the history of the building, I did what everyone with unanswered questions does: I turned to Google. On a Scottdale history site I read: "At 704 Arthur Avenue stands a building originally erected by the Evangelical Church and later used by the Jewish community. This building is no longer used by a religious institution."

A little more research revealed that there are actually hardly any Jews in Scottdale anymore -- they are less than one per cent of the population. As far as I can tell, there is no other place of Jewish worship in the area.

So, what happened to Scottdale's Jews? What caused the little worshipping community to die? Did they just stop going to synagogue, or did most of them pack up and move to bigger places, like nearby Pittsburgh?

A few weeks later, in another city, I attended a service at a church that once was one of the largest in its denomination. Today it is in decline, down from 800 members to 300, and with almost no youth or young families. On the Sunday I attended, between 100 to 200 people worshipped in a sanctuary that could seat many times that number.

The people who go there know their church is in trouble. Dwindling membership -- or a huge roof repair bill -- may soon put an end to its many decades of life. And then, like Beth Shalom in Scottdale, it too might become nothing but a memory.

People of faith don't usually like to talk about the death of worshipping communities, but it is a fact of life. It's also the subject of Philip Jenkins' new book, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia -- and How It Died.

In it, Jenkins, a scholar of religion who has written extensively about Christianity in the global South, notes that while Europe was emerging from the Dark Ages, Christianity was vibrant and growing in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

"Its sheer scale is astonishing," he writes, noting that by the seventh century, the church of the East was pushing deep into Central Asia and China. Before Saint Benedict formed his first monastery, there were Christian bishops in Persia, metropolitans in Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, and churches were operating in Sri Lanka and Malabar.

"Looking at the world in 850 or so, few observers would have doubted that the Christian future lay in the Middle East and Asia, rather than in the barbarian-ravaged lands of Western Europe," he says.

And yet those early ancient churches are gone -- groups like the Nestorians, Chaldeans and Jacobites -- due to a number of factors, including the rise of Islam in the region. All that's left are small remnants of those original churches in places like Iraq, Syria, Egypt and -- growing smaller every year -- in Palestine, home to the original Christian church.

What intrigues Jenkins is why Christians don't talk about church death.

"There is a major theological issue that nobody addresses, the theology of extinction," he says. "How do Christians explain the death of their religion in a particular time and place? Is that really part of God's plan? Or maybe our time scale is just too short, and one day we will realize why this had to happen... nobody is really discussing these questions."

Throughout history, "church death is a very common phenomenon," he continues. "Christianity moves from one area to another, but it also dies in areas where it has been strong. That fact violates a lot of what we expect about Christian growth. We have a theology of mission, not a theology of retreat."

Of course, that's not the only lesson Jenkins draws from the experience of those ancient churches. Christians in the West, who are seeing religion pushed further and further to the margins of society, can also learn something from the faithful few who remain in other lands -- groups like the Copts in Egypt, who have survived under Muslim rule for almost 1,400 years.

"Christians around the world have vast accumulated experience about dealing with minority status, and with exclusion from power and influence," he says. "We have much to learn about their adaptability in the face of dominant languages and cultures, their ability to learn the new languages of power, without abandoning their core beliefs."

And yet, his other question remains: Do Christians need a theology of retreat? As more and more congregations across Canada watch their memberships age and dwindle, and as denominations face difficult choices about which churches to close and which to leave open, perhaps the answer is yes.


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