The world holds its breath as European leaders attempt to address the financial crises embroiling Greece, Italy and the Euro. For what happens in Europe affects the rest of the world. That is true in the spiritual sense too. And that makes Europe a most strategic mission field.
Sometimes I hear of missionaries in Europe being cut off from support by home churches so that resources could be redirected to ‘more needy’ fields, ‘more responsive’ regions or ‘less reached’ peoples. It happened to me personally some years ago.
There’s a certain logic to such thinking, but it reflects misunderstandings about today’s realities. Lesslie Newbigin some years ago referred to post-Christian society as ‘the greatest missiological challenge’ of our time. Although he had spent most of his mission career in India, he had come to see Europe as an even more challenging mission field. The difference between a pre-Christian pagan and a post-Christian pagan, he explained, was the difference between a virgin and a divorcee.
Participants at the recent European Evangelical Alliance General Assembly heard that Europe was both a most needy and strategic field in this 21st century. Addressing this topic was the American Greg Pritchard, organiser of the annual European Leadership Forum held in Eger, Hungary. Comparing global trends with those of Europe, he showed by means of graphs how the growth of evangelicals over the past century in Latin America (5000%), Africa (4000%) and Asia (2000%) had been phenomenal. In contrast, European figures showed a drastic decrease of Christians in general.
Globally that meant a 122% increase of evangelicals, compared to 6% growth for Catholics and 47% loss for Orthodox over the past century. Islam grew by 59% and Hinduism by 7%, while Buddhism declined 24%.
That may be good news for evangelicals globally, said Pritchard, but we needed to realise that the growth of the evangelical churches was primarily in premodern societies that had not yet been impacted by modernity.
These churches were the ‘new form of Christianity’ the pope referred to recently in his Erfurt speech, a form ‘spreading with overpowering missionary dynamism, sometimes in frightening ways’, a form ‘with little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content, and with little stability.‘
The pope also spoke of the profound challenge of secularisation, through which ‘God is increasingly being driven out of our society’.
And here we see Europe’s strategic place globally, according to Pritchard, who named three strategic factors.
• Firstly, over the past six centuries, all intellectual developments have come from Europe to influence the world: the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, humanism, Marxism, existentialism, and so on.
• Secondly, Europe is educating the world, even more since 9/11 when the US restricted visas. The US has 55,000 foreign students compared to Europe’s 1.2 million.
• Thirdly, Europe is exporting the world’s fastest growing religion worldwide: unbelief. A century ago, 90% of the world’s ‘unbelievers’ were Europeans. Now only one in ten are Europeans. While much is being said about God being back on the world scene, Pritchard believes not enough attention is being given to the worldwide growth of the religion of unbelief.
While we may rejoice (despite the popes’ fears) at the growth of the majority world church, we must learn a lesson from the Wesleyan revival of the 18th century, he warned. Yes, the revival had a huge impact through evangelism, spiritual growth and social change. But it failed to address the challenges of the Enlightenment, Higher Criticism and Darwinian naturalism. It did not prepare the European church to face modernity and lose so many members.
Is the growing worldwide church any more ready for the onslaught of modernity than the European church was? Our task is two-fold therefore, said Pritchard: to equip the majority-world church against Europe’s export of unbelief, and also to address it at home here in Europe. The early church out-thought and out-lived their opponents. We must too.
Can the world afford a faith-meltdown in Europe any less than it can afford a financial meltdown?
Till next week,