During the 22 years I was a preacher in a local church, the most difficult question I was asked routinely was, “How is the church doing?” I never knew what to say. How do you measure this? Should we count how many people show up for Sunday worship? How many baptisms we’ve had this year? Whether or not we’re meeting our budget? How many people are truly on a discipleship track? How well are we impacting our city with tangible expressions of hope, justice, and righteousness? How enjoyable or challenging it is to be part of the congregation?
How do you measure the status of a church? That is even harder on a national or global scale. So, how is the church doing today?
From a global perspective, things look great if you measure growth rates. This is a great time to be alive and love Jesus. Christianity is the world’s fastest-growing religion by conversion. While there are certainly reasons for concern about the decline of the church in the former Christendom western countries, globally, Jesus is on the move.
Surprisingly, the country where faith in Jesus is growing fastest is Iran. That’s right. A country known as a pillar of Islamic extremism and religious oppression is experiencing an underground movement to Christ with an average annual growth rate of about 12 percent. This is true despite heavy oppression. I have visited with many refugees from Iran, some still Muslim and others now disciples of Jesus. They tell horrifying stories of their government surveilling, threatening, deporting, imprisoning, torturing, and even executing followers of Jesus. One new brother in Christ from Tehran told me in 2017 that four people from his underground church were beheaded for their faith. While that is not a typical story, it is very common to hear of arrests, imprisonments, and torture of Christians.
One of the Iranian believers who works with some of the disciple-makers we trained at MRN told a group of us in 2019 that he was first moved to seek Jesus because of the way Christians in prison with him responded to torture. This brother had gone on to baptize over 500 Muslim-background people by 2019 and continues to be a powerful disciple-maker in a European country today.
In Iran, if you call the number listed at the end of a satellite-broadcasted Christian program, you will get a call from the government warning you never to do that again. The Islamic regime is doing all it can to stop their people from coming to Christ, but it is not working. The masses are worn out with radical repression in Mohammed’s name and are turning to Jesus despite persecution. There may be as many as 800,000 to 1,000,000 Jesus followers in Iran, though numbers are hard to get.
Describing how the church is doing in Iran is not easy. It is growing but oppressed. You can’t find it in the open. As an institution, it is missing, but as a people movement, it is thriving. It has no political power, but it is feared by politicians with power. The same is true in other countries as well.
My point isn’t to chronicle how God is on the move in the Muslim world, as much as I love that story. For more on that, visit this page on our website. My point is that we should be cautious about presuming to know how the mission of God is doing at any given moment, as it is much more complex than what we can grasp.”
This matters right now in my home country of the USA and many other countries that are in troubled times. In the USA, the church’s institutional expression among the majority population was stagnant at best or even in decline before the pandemic. Now some experts are claiming 1 out of 5 congregations will never reopen when the pandemic is over. Every church is likely to experience a significant decline in attendance. Things have changed and we fear the worst.
Add to that the tension over various issues within our nation, and church life has not been an easy experience of late. But what does that mean? We feel pushed in the dirt.
Are we being planted or buried? To borrow Jesus’ parable from John 15, the farmer has come into his vineyard with a knife, and we feel the cuts. Are we being cut back or cut off? Is this a pruning of deadwood to make us more fruitful, or is the vine beyond recovery? That likely depends on how we respond to this moment (see Jeremiah 18:5-10).