Where is the Church in Europe going?
In one sense, this is an impossible question to answer. In the financial markets people make hundreds of millions of Euros by predicting the rise or fall of currencies—others lose hundreds of millions of Euros.
Fortunately, we know that all is not lost in the Church. In fact, the opposite is true.1 So the question is not “Will the Church in Europe one day arrive?” but “In what condition will the Church in Europe arrive?” or “How will the Church in Europe arrive?” To find a possible answer, we need to think about both where we have come from and where we are.
For the sake of time and space, this article looks only at evangelicalism, instead of the wider question of all those who profess Christianity. In the English-speaking world there are several definitions of evangelicalism. Church historian Dr. David Bebbington refers to four “main characteristics of evangelicalism,” namely, conversions, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism. Dr. John Stott also includes: the Bible and the cross and evangelism and conversion. Stott himself talks in terms of three evangelical “priorities”:
- The revealing initiative of God the Father
- The redeeming work of God the Son
- The transforming ministry of God the Holy Spirit
Evangelicals are Trinitarian Christians who are convinced that Jesus is the only Saviour and that the Bible is the ultimate authority. An experience of Christ associated with these convictions is the experience of evangelicalism.
Evangelicalism is often either misunderstood or misrepresented, and sometimes evangelicals’ own actions misrepresent the Christ we serve and the scriptures we seek to understand and follow. But this is evangelicalism at its core.
There are three possible futures for evangelicalism in Europe.
1. It goes under. Matthew 16:18 confirms this will not happen globally. Indeed, the signs of hope for the Church in Europe include the growing presence of many Christians from the Majority World (many of whom understand the missionary importance of their presence in Europe).
2. It withdraws from society and lives in an increasingly irrelevant corner. It has occasional excursions into the world to persuade a few others to come to the holy corner as well. If it does that, and uses a special language that is completely incomprehensible to most people, some will join it in the corner simply because a monastic existence has some attraction. In the meantime, society will slip away to hell.
3. It withstands various social pressures, enjoys increased influence in society, and sees many people finding Christ and growing in him. So what are some of those social pressures? Having talked in an earlier article about trends in society, we now return to two trends that have a direct impact on the Church.
- Secularism. Europe’s evangelicals gratefully acknowledge that secularism has brought some big benefits to evangelicals in countries like Spain, France, and Turkey.
- Fundamentalist Secularism. Today, however, there is a radical form of secularism on the march in Europe, which is fundamentalistic. It is aggressive and seeks to exclude all people of faith from public life. This is, of course, hopelessly inconsistent because it is itself a faith (in no god), so it really should exclude its own people from public life as well.
This pressure to exclude faith from life is by people desperate to restrict conversation about religion—all in the name of “respecting“ all beliefs. Personally, I have never had a problem talking with Muslim friends about spiritual issues. They have never objected to talking; in fact, many have tried to convert me! It is not a sign of respect to Christianity or Islam to restrict the freedom to share that faith enthusiastially. It is odd that tolerance therefore gets redefined to mean Christians and others of strong faith conviction can only be tolerated if they are willing to give up their convictions. In many parts of Europe today, absolute convictions will absolutely not be tolerated.
Christians are a soft target for two reasons. First, because Christianity has a longer history in Europe than Islam (the other missionary-minded religion), it has a longer history of bad things done in its name. Second, Christians are a soft target because they never react with violence.
The future may very well hold a reduced religious freedom, partly as a political reaction to the militant arms of Islam. Among other things, there are pressures on freedom of speech and on freedoms to evangelise (only secular fundamentalism or fundamentalist secularists can fully enjoy those freedoms). However, our biggest problems as Christians in Europe are internal:
- We expect far too little from the Lord.
- We have become far too comfortable.
- We are far too shallow in our understanding of scripture.
- We are far too indifferent to the needs of this needy world.
- We lack a vision for mission.
- We are not desperate for God.
Europe’s biggest problem today is not society out there. It is us. And still I am encouraged by several signs of life in the Church. Here are a few:
- Although statistics from the Protestant State Church in Germany show overall shrinkage, a growing number of people are joining as well. It is likely that a good percentage of those joining are people of real faith conviction, while those leaving are mostly nominal.
- There are growing congregations in many countries, especially in ethnic minority churches (e.g., black majority churches in the UK, African churches in France, Turkish churches in Bulgaria, and Gypsy churches everywhere).
- Young believers have a growing interest in world mission, poverty, justice, and prayer.
- Evangelicals have a growing willingness to stand up publicly, with great love and grace.
- Evangelicals have a growing influence as salt and light in society.
Three concluding thoughts:
First, ordinary people are shaping things more and more. The blog culture shapes the content of the news as well as the way it is received and presented. Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” in 2006 was “You.” Increasingly, the news is being driven by amateurs empowered by the internet.
Second, people do care about their futures. Very few people turn out for elections; however, huge numbers discuss important topics in chat rooms. In fact, it is possible that the low turnout for elections is even because people care. Cynicism about politicians may be a sign of that.
Third, people are as hungry as ever for relationships. This is true even if these relationships are at a distance or over the internet. The Triune God has designed us all, in his image, for relationships. Isn’t building relationships central to our understanding of life?
The early Christians were accused of “turning the world upside down.“ They knew that:
- Jesus had died for their sins.
- He had risen from the dead.
- The cross and the resurrecction had cosmic consequences.
They were prepared to live, and, if necessary, to die, for him. Their environment, although very different in some ways from ours, was hardly welcoming and waiting for them to shape it. And yet they did!
Could the start of the twenty-first century be our opportunity, under God, to turn the European world upside down? Who knows what he might yet do in Europe today if we humbly offer ourselves to him and to our world.
1. Although we also know that the Church in any particular place can be “lost” in future generations (e.g., the thriving churches of what is today Turkey or North Africa in the early Christian era).