Acts 8:1, 4, 11:19 “There arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria . . . Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word . . . . Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch . . . .”
A naive assumption that young followers of Christ often make is that they expect the church corporately to experience continual growth. They reason, “Jesus states in Matthew 16:18 that the gates of hell will not withstand the church’s progress. A healthy local church or denomination will experience ongoing growth.”
This assumption overlooks the fact that Jesus’ own public ministry was marked by times of numeric progress and regress. There were times when crowds flocked to hear him, and there were times when the same crowds turned away (John 6:66).
This assumption overlooks passages like Acts 8 in which the church in Judea is scattered. Furthermore, it ignores the testimony of church history. The church experienced sharp regress from the rise of Islam, internal schism, and doctrinal pollution. The church’s influence on culture and society has been extensive or negligible depending on the time and place in history. Church historian Kenneth Latourette describes this reality.
“From the seventh into the tenth century the Moslem Arabs mastered about half of the lands which had been ruled by Rome. This segment also embraced about half of what might be denominated Christendom. In it the Christian churches dwindled more or less rapidly.”
Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, Volume 1, page 270
“In the four centuries between 950 and 1350 Christianity was carried over a wider reach of territory than even in those great first five centuries of accomplishment which had inaugurated its course. . . Now followed another period when it seemed that Christianity was fading from the human scene. Between 1350 and 1500 the geographic frontiers of Christianity shrank alarmingly. The faith vanished from most of Asia and was hard-bested in Asia Minor and the Balkan Peninsula.”
Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, Volume 1, page 587
These facts should promote a more mature view of the church’s vitality. Seasons of pruning can be ordained by God to purify the church. Persecution can diminish the church in one region and force people to migrate. This in turn can cause the church to bloom in another region.
A mature faith says, “The Lord may place me in a time and location in history in which the church is experiencing numeric growth or decline. He may place me in a time and location in which the church’s impact on culture waxes or wanes. Regardless of the circumstances, I know that God's eternal purpose will prevail. Whenever and wherever Jesus places me, I will be faithful. The church doesn’t have to appear successful in order for me to faithful to Jesus Christ.”