Remember a couple of weeks ago when I lost my shirt over reports of Europe being ‘still the most Christian continent’? I concluded facetiously that David Barrett and Todd Johnson, editors of the World Christian Encyclopedia, must have been counting anyone who had ever seen a church building or could draw a cross when they claimed there were 537 million Christians in Europe.
I sent that Weekly Word to Todd, a fellow YWAMer, suggesting a dialogue on what sort of statistics would actually be useful for us working here in Europe. Todd responded saying he had no fundamental disagreement with what I had written. The fault in the claim lay with the journalists. The statistic needed to be seen in context, he wrote.
Take France, he said, for example. Starting with official Catholic Church figures (48 million), and allowing for drop-outs and minority church streams, Todd and David estimate 40.6 million Christians, or 70% of the population. “In light of the evidence, I’m not sure what use it would be to say that France can’t be 70% Christian,” writes Todd.
He then compares French-speaking Christians “(who at least have a Bible in their language, radio and TV broadcasts, the Jesus film, church planters, and many other resources) with the 4,000 least-evangelized peoples stretching from Morocco to Indonesia, many who lack any Christian contact or resource whatsoever.”
“Somehow, you have to find a way to defend and justify your work in Europe in such a way that that distinction is not lost,” he added, affirming his desire to be an ally and a supporter in our cause. “Let’s dialogue on this,” he concluded.
OK. Let’s do that. Perhaps you may have perspectives to share on this that we can pass on to Todd.
Let’s start by looking at how the French use this word “Christian”. David Bjork, missionary in France for some 20 years, writes that most French people he knows would comfortably say all of the following: “I am French. I am Catholic. I believe in reincarnation. I am a Christian. I am an atheist. I am a scientist, I go to a healer when I am sick. I am a rationalist.” (‘Unfamiliar Paths’, William Carey Library, 1997, p17.)
When a French person says they are Christian, Bjork explains, it has nothing to do with faith. It has everything to do with their identity as a people whose culture belonged to Christendom. Bjork questions that “Christian France” ever existed. Instead, we should talk about “post-Christendom France”. Perhaps it is fear, he suggests, that keeps us from acknowledging that post-Christendom lands are worthy candidates for missional reflection. Are we afraid that our task would seem too overwhelming if we made such an acknowledgement? he asks. In other words, if we can’t consider post-Christendom peoples Christian, then we aren’t faced with three impenetrable blocs of humanity (Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists), but four.
The Catholic Church itself, source of these statistics, does recognise this reality, and has declared France a nation of baptised pagans. The Pope has called for its re-evangelisation.
Tom Bloomer’s perspective from over 25 years of experience in France is that these figures are not only wrong, they are dangerous. “This is one reason why we have Christian leaders, including YWAM leaders, telling young people not to go to Europe,” he wrote in response to that same Weekly Word.
After a missionary career in India, in the heart of the 10/40 window, Bishop Lesslie Newbigin described post-Christendom society as “a pagan society whose public life is ruled by beliefs which are false. And because it is not a pre-Christian paganism, but a paganism born out of the rejection of Christianity, it is far tougher and more resistant to the gospel than the pre-Christian paganisms with which foreign missionaries have been in contact during the past 200 years. Here, without possibility of question is THE MOST CHALLENGING MISSIONARY FRONTIER OF OUR TIME.” (‘Can the West Be Converted?’, International Bulletin of Missionary Research 11, 1987).
Till next week.
Jeff Fountain[Oh, one other thing. I messed up the quote from Mark Twain. According to the Penguin Thematic Dictionary of Quotations, Twain (1835-1910) said “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics”. The dictionary also credits British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) with having said it first.]