One of the more celebrated churches in the book of Revelation is that of Philadelphia in modern-day Turkey.
This community of believers was commended by Jesus as those who “kept my word and have not denied my name” and who will therefore be kept “from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world” (Revelation 3:8,10).
Yet, little today remains of the ancient church of Philadelphia. In fact, the only historical remnants are three pillars from an 11th-century Church of St. John the Theologian and these pillars rest in the shadow of a mosque.
Standing in the ruins of this church, it is possible to hear the Muslim call to prayer and observe faithful adherents quickly walking without a glance past the dead ruins of this ancient church in order to participate in a living faith beckoning them to active worship.
What caused a vibrant faith to lie now as little more than a curious tourist attraction in the shadow of a living mosque? After all, at one time the churches in Turkey were part of the leading luminaries of the Christian faith.
Much of Paul’s missionary ministry occurred in Turkey. All seven of the first great ecumenical councils took place in Turkey.
In the Hagia Sophia and Chora Church, Istanbul is arguably home to one of the world’s greatest church buildings and some of the most spectacular mosaic art.
Though rich in a historical Christian culture and ethos, according to Operation World, Turkey, a country of 75 million, is today only 0.21 percent Christian.
This was nowhere more evident than when I met with a local ministry leader who has only been a Christian for four years and yet is already serving as one of the pastors for his community.
For safety, we met in a large and open park where we would be freer to directly discuss the realities of ministry in the shadow of the mosque.
Another believer in a different city hundreds of miles away told how families of believers were harassed by local police officers and the ongoing anxiety, fear and worry that gripped some Christians.
How did this happen?
Though primarily referencing churches in North Africa and the Middle East, in his 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,” Philip Jenkins offers several intriguing insights.
He notes that churches in this region slowly died over a number of years in part because of:
− Preoccupation with internal church maintenance rather than external outreach and welcome
− Distraction caused by church conflict and division
− Disconnection between the language used and priorities emphasized by the church and the broader culture and actual lived reality of the people in the churches’ neighborhoods
− Slow abandonment as more robust churches in the West became internally focused and over time simply stopped responding to the needs of brothers and sisters, who were increasingly living in the shadow of the mosque
None of these reasons directly relates to Islam itself. Certainly some would have chosen Islam out of specific faith rationales.
However, Jenkins rightly argues that churches themselves often bear much of the responsibility for their own decline.
There are many Christians and Muslims around the world who live in healthy contexts of mutuality. Islam is not an inherently antagonistic religion.
However, at least in Turkey, many Christians face challenges and difficulties as they seek to minister in a land of mosques.
If churches can grow, they can also die. This is a cautionary message worth repeating for these causative factors are all too often also present in other churches where what seems like today’s inevitable cultural strength can fade away altogether.
For the Christians of Turkey, there is far more immediacy. All too often they continue to remain isolated from and ignored by brother and sister Christians residing elsewhere.
It would be a travesty to celebrate the ancient Christian heritage of Turkey without also considering contemporary realities.
Elijah Brown is the director of the Freedom Center and associate professor of missions at East Texas Baptist University (ETBU) in Marshall, Texas, where he also serves as a faculty in residence. A version of this article first appeared on ETBU’s blog, The Intersection, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @ElijahMBrown.
Editor’s note: Jim Hill, executive director of Churchnet in Missouri, discussed the history of Christianity in Turkey in a video interview available here, and Brian Kaylor’s photo news story from the 2014 Baptist World Alliance gathering in Izmir, Turkey, is available here.
Elijah M. Brown is the general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance.