#5: FACE UP! …to the truth about the present. (Note: Some readers may notice that I have drawn on material from previous weekly words in this week’s chapter summary)
Over the past few weeks, I have been sending a summary of chapters of a book I am finishing off about recovering faith, hope and vision for tomorrow’s Europe. Earlier instalments can be read and downloaded from www.ywameurope.org.
While the first part of the book explains why Europe may be headed for a neo-pagan future as it jettisons its remaining “baggage” of Christendom, the second suggests responses God’s people must make as they lay hold of His future for the Prodigal Continent.
The 1st was: ASK! … what is God’s will for Europe?
The 2nd: REJECT! … the enemy’s disinformation
The 3rd: REMEMBER! … what God has done in the past
The 4th: ADMIT! … honestly the sins and mistakes of the Church
This week, the fifth imperative for God’s people is to:
#5: FACE UP! …to the truth about the present.
The headline in the Dutch Christian paper seemed to be too good to be true! It simply read: ‘Europe is still the most Christian continent’.
There were 537 million Christians in Europe, said the article, quoting the new edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia. That was more than in Latin America (483 million) and Africa (344 million) or Asia (314 million).
This had to be the best news I had heard since the fall of the Berlin Wall, I thought. All our concerns about Europe had been unwarranted! All those empty church pews had fooled us. What we thought was a mass exodus from traditional churches both east and west must have been people rushing off to the mission field! We had been misled by stories of a post-modern generation of disillusioned, cynical, non-churched European youth, despairing of meaning and purpose in life.
Reports of growing urban ghettos of migrant children with no Christian roots in our European cities must have been a misunderstanding. All those former communists in eastern Europe had apparently made their way back to the fold of the Orthodox Church, and had stopped dreaming of the ‘good, old days’ under Marxism. We could be comforted that trends towards legalised euthanasia, same-sex marriage and abortion – led by ‘Christian’ Holland(!) – were offset by the knowledge that, well, after all, ‘Europe was still the most Christian continent’.
All this time we had been grovelling in self-pity, thinking we were just a small faithful minority, like Elijah, unaware of the 7000 – rather, 537 million – faithful in the land. Hallelujah!
But … where were all these millions of Christians? I began to wonder. I had visited almost all European countries and had not discovered these supposedly large actively Christian populations. Somehow the arithmetic didn’t add up.
Could it be that the definitions being used counted anyone who had ever seen a church building or could draw a cross? I began to suspect that these definitions would include Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croatians tried in recent times in the UN Court at The Hague for multiple rape, genocide and other war-crimes. I had seen a lot of crosses drawn on walls in Bosnia staking out Serbian territory. And woe the Bosniac Moslem or Catholic Croat who strayed across the line!
No, I was not yet ready to rejoice over this ‘good news’. Indeed, it was too good to be true.
Rather, I was reminded of a much-trumpeted world map showing the current state of world evangelisation which appeared a couple of years ago. It was advertised as the ‘most historic and strategic map’ ever produced. So I had ordered ten of them. When they arrived, I eagerly pulled the maps out of the carton mailing tube, unrolled them and zoomed in on Europe. What did I discover? More good news! Belgium was already evangelised! and half of France! Wales too, but not England or Holland…
Let’s get real! I thought to myself. These sort of statistics about Europe meant nothing and helped no-one. It was time for us to get honest about our desperate situation in Europe. Of all continents, ours was most guilty of suppressing the truth about God and exchanging that truth for a lie (see Romans 1:18 & 25). That newspaper heading would have been more accurate with the alteration of one letter: ‘Europe is still the post-Christian continent’.
Now, that term ‘post-Christian’ upsets some people. Some say it is a negative confession, fatalistically accepting the status quo as irreversible. I do not believe this current state of affairs is God’s will for Europe. It should be clear from what we have covered so far that the whole purpose of this book is to help recover faith, hope and vision for tomorrow’s Europe.
But honest diagnosis precedes effective remedy. It is time to stop pretending.
Compared to the other continents, Europe is fast becoming a continent of spiritual dwarfs. Believers in China now outnumber the whole population of Germany. There are more Anglicans in Nigeria than in England and America combined. The Assemblies of God denomination in Brazil has more members than evangelicals in the whole of Europe. One church in Korea has a membership equal to the whole population of Amsterdam!
This newspaper headline provoked me into correspondence with one of the editors of the encyclopedia quoted. I suggested we needed better categories of statistics to reflect honestly the spiritual situation. Our dialogue began to focus around France. He explained that while official Catholic Church figures count 48 million French Catholics, allowing for drop-outs, he and his colleagues estimated 40.6 million French, or 70% of the population, to be Christian.
But how do the French themselves use this word “Christian”? David Bjork, a 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 spiritist healer when I am sick. I am a rationalist.” (‘Unfamiliar Paths’, William Carey Library, 1997, p17.)
So when a French person says they are Christian, Bjork explains, it usually has nothing to do with faith. It has everything to do with their culture belonging to “Christendom”. Bjork questions that “Christian France” ever existed. Instead, he believes we should talk about “post-Christendom” France.
Some years ago, I read another newspaper heading on the front page of the International Herald Tribune: “France is being possessed by the occult”. Now, the IHT is hardly a Christian publication, let alone charismatic or pentecostal. So I read with great interest what a secular journalist would have to say about the country where, during the French Revolution, ‘Reason’ was enthroned on the altar in Notre Dame Cathedral. France, I read, now had more spiritist healers than doctors, lawyers and priests combined in the whole country. The Catholic Church itself recognises this reality, has declared France a nation of baptised pagans, and has called for its re-evangelisation.
France, 70% Christian??! Marseilles on the Mediterranean coast, one of France’s largest cities, recently became predominantly moslem, with its large migrant population from North Africa.
Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, after a missionary career in India in the heart of the 10/40 window, described Europe on his return to his native England 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).
Space does not perm
it a country by country anal
ysis demonstrating an overall trend of rejection of traditional Christendom, especially in western Europe. The raw truth is, we are living in a “cut-flower” society. Certain values and institutions have grown out of biblical revelation and out of past revivals, helping to make western society humane. Concepts we take for granted like human rights, liberty, education for all, the dignity of the individual, the sanctity of life, grew out of a soil impregnated by biblical truth, a biblical understanding of humankind. Europe today is living on the memory of such Christian values. As Dr Schaeffer expressed it, Europeans are enjoying the fruit of the fruit of the fruit of biblical truth, without being conscious of the origins. But you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to predict what eventually happens to flowers when they have been cut off from their roots.
When communism imploded, politicians thought that mere transplantation of democracy and free market principles would be the solution for the former Soviet Union. But democracy and free market principles came out of the soil enriched by biblical truth. Without that kind of spiritually-enriched soil, such ‘flowers’ cannot bloom.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s advice to his fellow Russians on rebuilding society’s foundations apply equally to the west when he says:
“The strength or weakness of a society depends more on the level of its spiritual life than on its level of industrialisation. Neither a market economy nor even general abundance constitutes the crowning achievement of human life. The purity of social relations is a more fundamental value than the level of abundance. If a nation’s spiritual energies have been exhausted, it will not be saved from collapse by the most perfect government structure or by any industrial development; a tree with a rotten core cannot stand.” (see Rebuilding Russia, p56)
Yes, it’s high time to be honest about present realities.
It’s also time to recognise the signs that God is up to something new…
til next week,