Church Growth Exploding, but at Great Cost

by Matt Sanders

The church is expanding faster than ever in history, but it is not without a "horrible" cost, according to Paul Marshall, senior fellow at the Center for Religious Freedom, Freedom House, Washington, D.C., and author of the 1997 book, Their Blood Cries Out.

Citing the growth of the church in China from 1 million in 1980 to an estimated 50 million in 1999, Marshall said at a seminar in Fort Worth, Texas, "There is nothing in the Book of Acts that shows church growth on this scale. There's nothing I know of in the history of the church in any country at any time which had church growth at this scale."

The global growth of Christianity, he said, is not coming in Western Europe or the United States, but in places outside the West.

The cost of growth has been persecution of the church, Marshall said, which is a horrible, depressing thing that God nevertheless has used for good. "These are evil, unjust things that should be fought," he said. "But what is the other side? The good news is the spread of the gospel, the growth of the church, the power of the gospel in people's lives."

Marshall noted several incidents that have occurred since the middle of September:

- The senior Roman Catholic bishop in China, who has spent 15 years in prison and has been repeatedly tortured, has disappeared, while a prominent national leader in the unregistered Protestant house church movement in China was executed Oct. 14.

- Chechnyan militants have kidnapped a young Baptist deacon and are demanding that his church sell its building to pay the ransom. His predecessors have been kidnapped and beheaded.

- In India, a 26-year-old Catholic nun was raped and mocked for her faith.

- The Myanmar military government attacked 22 villages of a tribe who are mostly Christians. Witnesses said the military beat and stabbed to death many people.

- A Coptic Orthodox priest in Egypt was shot. A Coptic bishop faces from eight years in prison to the death penalty on charges resulting from his reporting that 1,200 members of his diocese had been tortured in August and September.

- In a largely Christian Sudanese province, 700 people die from starvation each day. An estimated 50,000 mostly Christian children have been sold into slavery.

"We are talking about things that are recent-not 2,000 or 200 years ago. This is the situation that we live in now."

An estimated 200 million Christians are exposed to persecution in about 60 or 70 countries, he continued. And the persecution is worsening in countries like China, Vietnam and North Korea-which he described as "perhaps the worst situation for Christians in the world."

Marshall also listed Islamic countries where Muslims who become Christians face the death penalty, including Sudan, Mauritania, Iran and Iraq. In other countries, he said, the threat comes from family members who have been shamed by the conversion. "Often you are much more in danger from an uncle than you are from somebody else in many Islamic countries," he said.

It is illegal to be a Christian in Saudi Arabia, he continued, and in Pakistan, blasphemy laws have been used against Christians.

In some countries like India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Butan, "increasingly aggressive Hinduism and Buddhism" persecute Christians, Marshall said, adding that in some countries, like Ethiopia and Mexico, "Christians" persecute other Christians.

The reasons for persecution are political and theological, Marshall said. "In the modern age, when the church grows, democracy grows. When the church grows, human rights grow," he said, citing a 1997 report by Freedom House. "The Christian faith affects the way we live and it affects the way societies go, and that worries them," Marshall said.

"Tyrants cannot have another king of any kind whatsoever. Another king means another loyalty. You have a loyalty to something more than them. That's why they kill you. That's why the church is repressed."

In a Far East Economic Review cover story on China titled, "God Is Back," a Beijing government official is quoted as saying, "If God had the face of a 70-year-old man, we would not care if He were back. But he has the face of millions of 20-year-olds and, therefore, we are worried."

Marshall listed five ways that churches in America can be more involved in helping the persecuted church.

- Be informed and pray constantly. "No church should ever meet for congregational worship without praying for the persecuted church," he said.

- Make contacts within the persecuted church. "We can go there. We can know them and they will change our lives," he said.

- Publicize the plight of the persecuted church. He commended non-Christians Michael Horowitz and Abe Rosenthal who have "done more than any Christian" to draw attention to the problem.

- Pressure the U.S. government to take action. Last fall, with a 98-0 vote, the Senate passed the International Religious Freedom Act.

- Include the entire church, not just the church in America, in our definition of the body of Christ. "God has made us one with one another, as one body;we share the same joys and the same sufferings."

Baptist Press