Why Villages Matter: How the Church Died in North Africa, but Survived in Egypt

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

Kakopetria Village Stock imageIn recent years, it has become popular among evangelicals (especially Reformed evangelicals) to emphasize church planting in big cities.  Numerous books, articles, and blog posts have put forth the call to plant churches in the major urban centers of the world,under the belief that what happens in the city will eventually influence the rest of society.  In many ways, the renewed emphasis on cities is a good thing.  We should not neglect the cities, and we should seek to influence the influencers of society in hopes of having a broader impact upon society at large.  

However, with all the rhetorical emphasis on the city, some people have begun wonder, “Hey, what about the countryside?  What about small towns and villages?  Don’t rural areas matter too?”  Although I don’t think we could find anyone who’d say that rural areas don’t matter, the unspoken message is that the countryside matters less.  Way less. Rural areas are not strategic.  They are not centers of influence. What happens in the countryside stays in the countryside.  In sum, small towns and villages are not strategic in terms of impacting a society for the Gospel.  Or are they?

In the “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 chronicles the rise and decline of the church in the non-Western world, noting the reasons why Christianity died or survived in various areas.  One the most striking comparisons in the book comes in chapter 8, where Jenkins compares the church in North Africa with the church in Egypt.  Whereas the North African church was virtually obliterated by arrival of Islamic invaders, the Coptic Church in Egypt refused to die. Despite many centuries of Muslim domination, the Coptic Church has pressed on as an embattled and marginalized minority.  What made the difference?  You guessed it.  Villages. Small Towns. Rural Areas.  When the Christian faith sunk deep roots into the lives of the common people in the local language in rural areas, the church survived the political and religious turmoil that devastated the churches in major cities.

Concerning the church in North Africa, Jenkins writes:

Where the African church failed was in not carrying Christianity beyond the Romanized inhabitants of the cities and the great estates, and not sinking roots into the world of the native peoples. Like most regions of the Western empire, such as Gaul and Spain, Africa was divided between Latin-speaking provincials and old-stock natives, who spoke their ancient languages—in this case, varieties of Berber. Unlike these other provinces, though, the African church had made next to no progress in taking the faith to the villages and the neighboring tribes, nor, critically, had they tried to evangelize in local languages. This would not have been an unrealistic expectation, in that already by the fourth century missionaries elsewhere were translating the scriptures into Gothic, and Hunnic languages followed by the sixth century. Evidence of the neglect of the countryside can be found in the letters of Saint Augustine, by far the best known of African bishops, whose vision was sharply focused on the cities of Rome and Carthage; he expressed no interest in the rural areas or peoples of his diocese.1

Had the Latin-speaking Christians in the cities of North Africa reached out to the rural areas, one wonders if a significant Christian minority would have survived in those regions like it did in Egypt.  Jenkins continues,

In vivid contrast [to North Africa], the Egyptian churches certainly did reach the hearts of their natives, and from early times… Already by 300, Christianity was firmly rooted among ordinary Egyptians, too deeply to be affected very badly by most disasters that might befall, whether by the loss of the Greek language, of all the great cities, or of their elites. When we also realize that after Antony’s time Egyptian Christianity would still have another 350 years of development and tradition before the coming of Islam—at least twelve generations—we can understand just how knotty a task Muslims would have in challenging the older faith.2

What lesson should we take from the fate of the churches in North Africa and Egypt?  Don’t neglect small towns and rural areas for the sake of ministering in the big cities.  Do we need people to minister in major cities and reach out to the movers and shakers?  Absolutely.  But when there are major societal upheavals, the first places to be captured and consolidated by new regimes are the cities.  Lots of people in a small place are easier to control than a large number of people spread out over a vast geographic area, especially when you add extreme terrain like mountains, jungles, and deserts.  

If the Gospel takes root in places that are less subject to the volatile winds of political and social change, than the church has more staying power in the society as a whole.  The political and cultural leaders of the cities certainly have the power to influence society, but a quiet faith lived out inconspicuously in a small town is less subject to the pressures and temptations to compromise that will press in upon prominent city dwellers.  Those with cultural and political capital may be tempted to preserve that capital at the cost of keeping the faith, whereas those without cultural influence to begin with don’t need to worry about losing it.  As long as they can still feed their family, and worship God according to their conscience, life and faith can go on.  

Cities are important, but when we take a long-range perspective and look at the impact of the Gospel over the course of centuries, it becomes obvious that small towns are extremely important as well.  But let’s not create a dichotomy between cities and rural areas, arguing about which area is more important or more strategic.  Those who have a heart for the city need to support and affirm those who work in the countryside.  And those who labor in small towns and villages need to support and affirm those who labor in the city.  Both areas are important, and amidst the renewed emphasis on cities, we need to be careful to not look down on the somewhat less-exciting and less-trendy rural areas.  After all, it was small town churches and monasteries that saved the church in Egypt from annihilation.  And little country churches may well be the saving grace of Christianity in our nation as well.

1 Jenkins, John Philip (2008-10-16). The Lost History of Christianity (p. 229-230). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

2 Jenkins, John Philip (2008-10-16). The Lost History of Christianity (p. 230-231). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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