It was Winston Churchill who made famous the statement “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” This oft-quoted illustration makes sense to many of us who have lived in Europe. Numerous times people have asked me to explain why Europe is in a down-trend spiritually. My first challenge in answering the question is trying to find a simple way to explain a complex subject. Understanding a subject as vast and comprehensive as Europe is a daunting task. My thoughts are offered here in hopes to begin to address this complex subject.
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After World War II many people considered Europe to be “post-Christian.” The cumulative effect of two world wars was devastating. Europeans were caught in a malaise of hopelessness. Many of the Christian mission agencies working in Europe today were born in the ashes of post war Europe. Deeply moved by the destruction of life during the war, these missions sought to bring a new awareness to Europe with the hope of Jesus Christ.
Today’s Europe is different. It can rightly be said to be “pre-Christian.” By saying that, I’m referring to the thousands of immigrants who now live in Europe. I also refer to the generation of Europeans who rejected Christianity and did not teach their children about Christ. As will be seen further in this paper there is a real sense that Europe has moved to something reminiscent of the days of the NT when Paul and other early Christians preached the Gospel and planted churches there. The picture of Europe is a challenge to comprehend. Understanding Europeans in order to know how to relate to them with the love of Christ is our task.
It must be said from the beginning that my perspectives on Europe are truly that–perspectives of my own, based on living among them for 14 years, and another 10 years of ministry from the US. I have many friends throughout Europe. It must also be made clear from the beginning, to speak about Europe as a whole, (as though in every country everything said here is exactly as stated), would be to exaggerate it. If I did that I would greatly misrepresent Europe and my good friends. The Europe we know is a montage, a complete picture made up of a number of complete pictures. Thus to represent them as one would be to ignore their uniqueness as God created them. It would under value their enormous contribution to the world of their art, their great thinkers, their theologians, their educational institutions, their writers and the magnificent structures they have created over the centuries. In short, it would denigrate their impact on the world. The reader is encouraged to see these sweeping generalities as merely helpful guidelines to better understand. These are descriptors based on my own experience.
Perhaps the best way to present the picture of Europe is to see it as a series of snapshots allowing us to cogitate on it, in order to gain perspective and understanding. My desire is to encourage the reader to juxtapose his or her assumptions held and conclusions drawn in order to look freshly at Europe and perhaps redefine understanding.
These snapshots are fraught with meaning at every level of interchange with Europeans; from politics and international relations, to ministry development and personal relationships. I encourage the reader to consider the comparisons brought forth here:
Churches and Cathedrals
The subject of Europe immediately conjures up mental pictures of its empty churches and cathedrals. Because these great edifices stand silent and virtually unoccupied, they become exhibit A in the trial of this apostasy, as lamented by Americans. My appeal is for us to recognize the “stories” embedded in them of the generations who built them as their best attempt to glorify God. Let us see them for the enduring story, cast in wood and stone adorned with precious gems and great works of art, that attest to the faith of those who built them. These magnificent structures are far more than empty tombs, or monuments to be pitied. They are silent voices speaking of the majesty of God. Rock solid and enduring, they testify of the creator God, reflecting his glory and speaking in to the cacophony of contemporary culture. By their solidarity they stand as silent witness to the consistent reach of God to fulfill his purpose in the affairs of men.
Today we must recognize the face of Europe is changing. The world has come to Europe as a result of Europeans going to the world with the Gospel. The 3 branches of Christianity were born and still are based in Europe: the Eastern church, the Western church and Protestantism. The peoples of the world received their form of Christianity from these branches. Today immigrants from all corners of the world have found a home in Europe. They are bringing both their religion native to their culture, as well as the Christianity they received from missionaries who impacted their home cultures. (This is a phenomenon where the Holy Spirit is reversing the influence of those who once received taking back to those who once gave.) So in Europe presently, many of the largest churches are comprised of immigrants, such as those who have come from Africa.
Security and Meaning
Europeans have a sense of belonging derived from their place in history. They have a long, rich and colorful past. Their sense of the present is derived from the vibrancy of their past. Their view of the future is not projected far. They are content with their place in history. The future is not a major concern as something to be conquered. Thus Europeans are anchored to their commitment to continuity. It’s their sense of commitment to their history that gives them security, stability and self worth.
In contrast, Americans look to the future, almost ignoring the past. Our sense of self worth and confidence is derived from our optimism of the future flavored with a sense of manifest destiny. To this we feel “called” to accomplish great things. Problems are welcomed as opportunities to conquer. This all results in a kind of bravado Europeans interpret as arrogance. We see them as stodgy and unwilling to take risk. They see us as foolhardy, short sighted, simplistic and naive. Americans are quick to judge. Europeans are cautious, that caution being flavored with a desire to be inclusive of other Europeans. Rapprochement of European governments is highly pursued after centuries of conflicts. They focus less on power and more on multinational cooperation.
I’ve presented the idea of the sense of continuity by Europeans which affects how they see the church. Largely, they are not interested to be part of the church themselves, yet they see themselves as “Christian” because of this corporate sense of belonging. They baptize their children in to the church, sometimes marry in the church, and are buried by the church. Although they are not personally committed to faith, it’s still important to have the church as a kind of “anchor” for their meta narrative.
Peace at Any Price
A drive to achieve perpetual peace is the inner motivation for contemporary Europeans. This is in contrast to Americans who rely on military might, conducting affairs internationally with arcane rules and laws, as far as the Europeans are concerned. Americans seek to resolve conflicts with a unilateral approach as Europeans watch them nonplussed and bewildered. Europeans confront issues holistically with patience and forbearance. Americans tend to see issues and conflicts as right or wrong, black or white, good or evil. But Europeans maintain a sense of continuity, not feeling the necessity to resolve issues in the same sense of urgency. They look for the “tie that binds.” In the past the ruling houses of Europe engaged in marriages of convenience in order to control and maintain peace. Contemporary European governments follow a path of creating inclusive alliances. In the last 100 years, Europeans nearly annihilated themselves, resulting in an attitude today of avoiding hegemonic interplay which they understand would destroy them. The underbelly of this attitude is the value they place on the high morality of humanism. This sense of morality is an interesting alchemy of biblical Christianity and Enlightenment humanism. Nevertheless, as Christians, we can appreciate their value of affirmation of human life because we believe in the sanctity of human life as God given.
Europeans and Global Reach with the Gospel
In a very practical sense Europeans see Americans much as Europe’s own Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes characterized the Spanish hero Don Quixote. As the Don approached conflicts it was often in his own perceptions of reality, even of creating his own realities, in order to fend off the destructive forces around him. He was there to save the day, right all wrongs, defend honor and make all things right. Just as Don Quixote acted, “tilting at windmills” is the way Europeans see Americans responding. This quixotic style permeates even our missionary strategies, plans and actions. Americans can feel rebuffed and even sometimes “used” by Europeans because we do not understand Europeans and assume motives they never intend. Our actions are resisted reflexively by Europeans because they see those actions as reactionary and unbalanced. It behooves us to recognize, there are overtones to all this as we conduct ministry throughout Europe.
Wisdom beckons Americans to take a position as a “paraclete”, to come alongside Europeans. Allowing them to be in charge of their own affairs is much better to achieve lasting results. In so doing we develop a partnership with them as we mutually engage in the responsibility to reach the world with the Gospel. It was without equivocation as to ethnicity or standard of living Jesus gave the same charge to his church to present the Gospel to all peoples.
It’s intriguing to ponder what it could mean if God considered Europe important to become his ambassadors since he sovereignly directed Paul to go West in to Europe with the Gospel (Acts 16). It was Paul’s intention to go east until God arrested him and turned him the other way. Since the Gospel was sent to Europe, rather than to the East, I ponder the degree of obligation we have under the Great Commission mandate Jesus gave his church. To be clear here, I’m not saying the Great Commission was given to Europe and the US alone. Although, I do wonder about the privilege of position the Sovereign God placed on us. Could there be a unique responsibility to lead, to model, to demonstrate for others what it means to follow the command of Jesus to go to the world? This leading, modeling and demonstrating is the preferred action for us instead of directing in order to achieve results we want. It is our obligation to raise up others by speaking in to cultures other than our own and cooperating with God as he brings about a people for his name, from every tribe, tongue and nation.
We Americans are motivated to do the right thing. Even though we have good intentions we miss the mark when we proceed in uninformed ways. Doing the wrong thing in order to reach our objectives is unacceptable. The unintended consequences of our actions sometimes communicates a message to those we seek to serve and motivate to respond themselves … that ministry must be done our way. It’s natural for a person to act in accord with the way things have always been done in one’s own culture. As Americans, we have developed our altruistic approach to international ministry on the basis of our economic ability to drive our objectives. Since those we seek to serve may be incapable of driving the ministry financially, even in their own country, they expect us to pay them to accomplish our goals which they have adopted. To be certain, we want to give, and we must give as stewards of all God has entrusted to us. Yet, in so doing, we may rob them of their dignity, creating dependency and perhaps truncate their growth in maturity as stewards themselves. Their trust may be in us Americans rather than the Lord. Those we seek to serve often expect us to exercise faith to provide for them, instead of exercising faith themselves. It behooves us to exercise patience and wait on God to direct his own work. But avoiding the temptation to set our goals and create our strategies is sometimes difficult.
In many countries of Europe today, the philosophy of socialism has fostered a system of sharing of personal and societal resources. Christians pay taxes to the government who in turn distribute finances to the church. This may sound foreign, even threatening to an American. It’s not all bad, it’s just one way of living and one way of governing a culture. The downside may contribute to a lack of maturity in stewardship within the church. In spite of this, Europeans have created and supported many causes around the world, not the least of which are those of European missionaries.
Here is the good news. I see our European friends embracing the sense of responsibility to be good stewards of their resources. It’s encouraging to realize several nations in Europe are already assisting other nations to develop their own national ministry. It’s easy to give a biblical view and apologetic for the goal of each nation to become autonomous and help other nations as well. That is the principle of multiplication and discipleship Jesus laid down for his church. Some Europeans still struggle with the reality of personal stewardship and responsibility, but there are signs of Europeans changing as they take on accountability of stewardship.
Today’s Opportunities in Europe
Europe has been much maligned as being the source of Post-modernism. Unfortunately, many American Christians see this transition of world view as evil personified. To many Evangelical Americans, Post-modernism is a disease to be overcome. We must work to understand Postmodernism. It seems there are many “lay definitions” and assumptions which exist. The fact is there are two streams of Post-modernism, destructive and reconstructive. The destructive stream is as it’s name would imply, a belief that there is no such thing as absolute truth, every thing is ultimately absurd. This attitude gives license to uncontrolled freedom which results in total self exaltation. The reconstructive stream recognizes spirituality, though not necessarily biblical spirituality that leads to faith in Christ. They do not need to be convinced of a supernatural existence. Reconstructive Post-moderns desire to have truth demonstrated to them in genuine ways that are often lived out in relationships.
This commitment we have to communities is very biblical. Europe, in the 4th century, saw the Irish monk we call St. Patrick, uniquely practicing evangelism/discipleship by establishing communities where people were invited to “belong in order to believe.” We have somehow turned that around to practice community as the reward for believing. One must first believe in order to belong. Careful investigation of the scriptures shows us the writers of the NT and the practice of the early church was more like Patrick practiced. We are in a wonderful place to convey true biblical faith to European Post-moderns by virtue of our creation of communities of faith. These are the incubators where transformation of life takes place.
There is today a layered effect of spirituality in Europe. While true, there have been movements of the Spirit over time, still the reality is Europe is syncretistic. This syncretism is a mixture of paganism with Christianity layered over the top of culture and world view. The bottom layer is a plethora of pagan religions, natural to the unregenerate cultures. In centuries past, Christianity was superimposed on them, often by well meaning kings and queens. This is a cacophony of intentions that includes political alliances conceived for national preservation or prominence, as well as true spirituality.
Today the world has come to Europe bringing both foreign religions and true spirituality. The picture is one of an international religious smorgasbord featuring Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, New Age Mysticism and every other variety extant. Add to that African religions, and African, Asian and Latin American Christianity. The latter three results from the penetration of European missions in to foreign lands, with immigrants who have a true relationship with Christ now living in Europe. One interesting fact in Europe today is the effect these Christian immigrants are having on Europeans. As stated already, some of the largest churches in Europe are immigrant churches.
Careful observation of Europe today reveals the Spirit of God brooding over Europe as he prepares the Bride of Christ for the coming of the Bridegroom. There are traditional churches holding on to what they believe is their responsibility to maintain the status quo and keep the faith. However, simultaneously, new ones are emerging that look very different from the traditional church. We live in a dynamic time. We are seeing a movement in the church, something of a reformation. It’s a reformation of what I call “church structures.” This is seen in the unusual ways God’s people are gathering, places where they gather to worship and cultivate relationships in order to penetrate their cultures. There are Christians who are involved in movements of the arts, prayer and house churches that go virtually unnoticed and unreported in the media. These Christians are becoming culture changers.
There are sweeping changes bubbling up from underneath the surface of the cultures connected to innovative manifestations worldwide. As Habakkuk 1:5 instructs us, “Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.” While this was said to encourage Israel by the prophet of God, to announce and remind Israel of God’s plan and purpose, we see the truth of it being worked out in our own times. This work of God is the fulfillment of Jesus’ commission to go to the world with the Gospel, recognizing the great plan of God is to bring a people to himself out of the lost masses of humanity. I propose Rev. 5:9-10 summarizes the whole message of the Bible. “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom of priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” God’s heart is communicated as we realize he has a “plan”, called redemption. He has a purpose he is fulfilling since the foundation of the world, by placing his redeemed ones in a new Kingdom of which he is the Sovereign King! God has no peer and his ways are beyond our comprehension.
As stated at the beginning, I do not consider myself an expert on the subject of Europe. I only humbly offer my perceptions gleaned over the years in the hope they will be helpful. It’s my desire to draw people outside of Europe to understand and develop a love and appreciation of all that is Europe, its history and its place in the plan of God. In doing so I challenge everyone to pray for the peoples of Europe to come to faith in Christ. Pray also for a great outpouring of the Spirit who is Holy to bring about renewal in the existing churches and a great spiritual awakening. We want to contribute to movements that would sweep the continent resulting in the new reformation taking place. Let us speak to others on behalf of Europeans to encourage a ground swell of understanding and commitment to support a resurgence of the once mighty influence of Europe. In so doing we’ll unite with them to reach the world for Christ. I have given myself to that task. Will you join me? Will you join others who have the same commitment? Truly, this is a time for Christians to participate with the Spirit as God fulfills his promise long ago delivered to Habakkuk and foreseen by the Apostle John in the Revelation of Jesus Christ.