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The counterintuitive church

Credit: Johannes Plenio/

It is one of those good news, bad news scenarios. No Christian likes persecution, and increasingly believers are being targeted for their beliefs in Western Democracies and as counterintuitive as it sounds, this may actually be good news for the church.

According to a study by Nilay Saiya and Stuti Manchanda, published in Society of Religion, an academic journal, there is a strange anomaly in Christianity where it does better in places where it’s not the favoured religion and even faces active persecution, than in countries where it is embraced.

The authors came to this conclusion after studying the growth and acceptance of Christianity in 166 nations between 2010 and 2020.

The authors noted that of the ten countries with the fastest growing Christian populations today, seven of them involve nations that have low acceptance or even resistance to the Christian faith:

  • Malawi,
  • Uganda, 
  • Rwanda, 
  • Madagascar, 
  • Liberia,
  • DR Congo, and 
  • Angola.

Only three nations, where Christianity was politically and culturally accepted, made it in to the top ten: Tanzania, Zambia, and Kenya.

Saiya and Manchand added that Christianity is also growing in many Asian nations that in some instances actually recognize another religion as its official faith.

The authors particularly cited what is taking place in South Korea:

Consider the case of South Korea, which in the course of a century has gone from being a country devoid of Christianity to one of its biggest exporters. It currently ranks as the second-largest sender of missionaries, trailing only the United States.

This example illustrates well the paradox of pluralism. Because South Korea is not a Christian country, Christianity enjoys no special relationship to the state. In fact, Christianity in Korea endured the brutal persecution of Japanese colonial rule, during which churches were forcibly closed down and their properties confiscated. Indeed, the church persisted through poverty, war, dictatorship, and national crises throughout Korean history.

Since World War II, Korean Christianity has grown exponentially, with tens of thousands of churches being built and seminaries producing thousands of graduates every year. Today, about a third of the country is Christian.

In contrast, the church is often declining in countries where governments embrace or favour Christianity. This includes countries such as Germany that even has an official state church.

They also pointed to Hungary, that has officially declared itself a Christian nation, but only 12% attend church services on a regular basis and only 14% consider their faith important.

The study suggested that Christianity thrives best when it is put in a position where it needs to compete with other religions for the hearts of people, rather than being the dominant faith.

In some countries where Christianity has major cultural and even governmental support, the Christian faith often takes on a more political tone, that may negatively affect its growth.

And, when it has a dominant role in a society, is it also possible that the church relies more on its status and acceptance for its growth than the Holy Spirit?

The early church experienced rapid growth despite being actively persecuted by Jewish leaders (Acts 5:17-19), Rome (Acts 12:1-3) and other religions that held political clout, such as took place in Ephesus (Acts 19:23-27).

But there was a reason for this.

Just prior to His ascension, Jesus told the early believers that they would receive power via the Holy Spirit that would enable them to spread the gospel around the world (Acts 1:8).

Facing resistance from the Roman government and Jewish authorities (Acts 4: 27), the early believers called out to God for signs and wonders, so they would have the courage to preach Jesus in the face of persecution.

29 Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. 30 Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.

They got it and the church exploded.

READ: New Study Shows Christianity Spreads Best in Unlikely Places AND Proof That Political Privilege Is Harmful for Christianity

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