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Beyond Fear & Ignorance

Last week I had my chance to find out why churches in England have taken seriously the challenge of our spiritual age in ways not yet obvious elsewhere in Europe. A few weeks ago I shared how puzzled I was that churches on the continent seemed to lag far behind their British counterparts when it came to engaging with today’s spiritual seekers.
For the third year in a row, evangelists gathered in Basel for mutual encouragement and to share with others interested in spirituality among the non-churched.
Our special guest was Steve Hollinghurst from the Church Army in England, a lay evangelistic movement within the Anglican Church. Steve has been very active in encouraging British church leaders and congregations to grasp the opportunities offered by today’s spiritual climate.
Steve recounted that pioneers like John Drane (What the New Age is saying to the Church) were already speaking out in the 1980’s about the need for a different approach to New Agers other than simply ignoring or rejecting them. But it was only five years ago or so that there was an explosion of interest.
The publication of a major report called Mission-shaped Church in 2004 by Bishop Graham Cray and others was a major catalyst in this ‘explosion’. The whole church needed to turn outwards in mission ‘because of God’s call to be mission-shaped’. (Google: ‘Mission-shaped Church’)
Fresh expressions
Anglican Church leaders, from the archbishop downwards, were recognising how transformed their own missionary context had become. Six out of every ten people were now ‘beyond the reach’ of many traditional approaches to mission and evangelism.
Bishop Cray pointed to a move away from ‘religion’, understood entirely negatively, to ‘spirituality’, with little clear definition. Christianity was synonymous with ‘church’ and the Church was tarred with the brush of ‘religion’.
Such a situation called for both ‘fresh expressions’ of church and of evangelism, the report concluded. Small groups, relational mission, gatherings at alternative times to Sunday mornings, work- or school-based churches, post-denominational churches, café churches, network-focused churches (connecting with specific networks) and new monastic communities were among examples cited of such ‘fresh expressions’.
This official Anglican recognition had nation-wide impact on leaders of all denominations. Wide-spread interest resulted when well-known Methodist author and speaker, Rob Frost of Share Jesus International, initiated a national tour in 2004 to pose the question: ‘Where is your church in a spiritual age?’
In cinemas from north to south, Rob and his team addressed the ignorance and fear holding many churches and Christians back from sensitive engagement with those seeking spiritual reality and who believed the church would be the last place to find it.
The first step was to make the Christian public aware of the shift in public thinking. The New Spirituality was no longer just a fringe phenomenon! New Age books now outsold all other religious books! While 70% of the British public believed in ‘God’, 44% believed He (It) was simply a life-force. Many of those who said they believed in life after death believed in reincarnation. There had been a remarkable increase in reported spiritual experiences, especially among the unchurched.
Secondly, evangelism in today’s context was becoming a cross-cultural task. That meant we needed to study the culture of the New Spirituality, explained Steve. What did people really believe? We needed to find communication keys and bridges, as did overseas missionaries like William Carey, Hudson Taylor and Don Richardson in non-western settings.
Risk-taking
What does this mean for us on the continent? I asked myself while listening to Steve. One major task before us was to convince both leaders and the Christian public about the shift in today’s spiritual climate all across Europe.
We also need a new realisation that the Biblical mandate called us to go into all the world, including even New Age fairs! Jesus ventured into ‘no-go’ zones, as with the woman at the well. Paul’s cross-cultural mission approach was to become ‘all things to all men’, quoting from the spiritual sources of his audience, as in Acts 17. Jesus modelled incarnational mission. He became one of us. He doesn’t tell us to go into all the world and conform every creature to our sub-culture.
Thirdly, we need to spread the encouraging stories of those who are effectively engaging with seekers. Johan den Hartog, of Torchbearers (Fakkeldragers) in Holland, told of people who had seen a star above their stand at a New Age fair, or had ‘received’ the stand number and knew they had to come to find out about Jesus. Others told of healings and radical transformations.
And we need to encourage new thinking and risk-taking to create ‘new communities of Christian faith as part of the Mission of God, to express his Kingdom in every geographical and cultural context’ – to quote from Mission-shaped Church (p29).
As in England, it means developing information tours through strategic centres across the continent. Bible schools, seminaries, citywide networks and denominational leadership all need to embrace the need for ‘fresh expressions’ if the church in Europe is going to move beyond fear and ignorance.
Till next week,
Jeff Fountain

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