As Europe recovers from the shock of various extremist groups taking political power, and as I am at the European Leadership Forum in Poland, with several hundred European church leaders, perhaps its time to reflect on where the Church in Europe is going?
Put any group of Christians together and you will get a wide variety of opinions – some of them contradictory. That is particularly true when we are trying to assess the state of the Church in Europe today. On the one hand there are the doom and gloom merchants, the Jeremiahs, full of facts and figures about numbers and visions of the past, pointing out that the church is dying and we are all "doomed, doomed". On the other there are the "God is doing a new and greater thing" brigade, the revivalists who are also full of facts and figures but their visions are visions of the future. They assure us on the basis of what is happening in a couple of churches, and a dream that they had that victory is just around the corner, revival is on its way and all we have to do is help their ministry. Isn't it strange how both the "realists" and the "revivalists" seem to be able to justify their own ministeries because of their prophecies? We are told that we need to support the realists because only in that way will the remnant hang on until the Lord returns. On the other hand we had better support the revivalists because we don't want to miss out on the revival.
Of course that is a very simplistic summary and there are many people who don't quite fall into either category. The trouble is though that both positions are to some extent true. Let us consider them in terms of the closing door and the opening door.
The Closing Door
Europe was once a largely Christian continent. When the apostle Paul had his vision of the Man from Macedonia, it was a dream with enormous consequences which meant that Europe, as opposed to India, China or Africa, the predominantly Christian continent. The concept of Christendom was far too easily abused and there is much that one could decry in 'Christian' Europe – however it is still the case that for every nation in Europe our laws, education and welfare systems were based upon Christian principles. And we were a better continent for that. The trouble is that that has largely vanished. Yes, some of the fruit remains, but the roots have largely gone, and the rest of the fruit will soon rot. In the 19th century the Church itself began to undermine the Bible (through Higher Criticism coming first from Germany and then the English speaking nations) thus sowing the seeds of our own destruction. Then legalism and liberalism battled with one another as equal opportunity heresies to see who could do the most damage. When the whirlwind of materialism, the sexual revolution and anti-authority hit much of Western Europe in the 1960s, we were so rotten at the core that since then the Church in many parts has basically imploded. What the French Revolution was not able to do over a century, mass media, corporate capitalism, the aftermath of two world wars and corrupt churches have achieved within a couple of decades – the secularization of most of the European continent. The whole concepts of Christendom, national churches and civic Christianity are in many places sadly redundant. And I say this with sorrow – not because of the Church, but because of the impact this will have, and is already having on European society – which will be much poorer as a result.
Take for example the question of education. My own country was once known for its outstanding education system (founded upon John Knox's principle that where there was a church there should be a school). We were a nation who believed that everyone should be taught to read, write and think for themselves, not least so that they could understand the Bible. Now 20% of Scots are functionally illiterate.
Or take social justice. Sweden had a national church until the 21st Century and had developed a strong sense of social justice and fairness, largely based on the Christian roots of the nation. But now Sweden is seen (at least by American liberals) as the ideal secular utopia. The only trouble is that as the roots have gone, the fruits are also beginning to wither.
The Opening Door
But it is not all doom and gloom. I think the door is closing. But a new one is opening. There is a new openness to church planting and evangelism. Having been involved in communicating the Gospel for over 25 years I would venture to observe that people in the United Kingdom are more open to the Gospel than they have been for 25 years and I have a suspicion that this is true of much of Western and Northern Europe. In my church we run an international café for the many international students who come to Dundee. Ten years ago it was largely Chinese and Indonesians who came. Four years ago we had as many Germans as Chinese and we are noticing a new openness amongst many of the European students. We have so many new opportunities as we revert to a Greco-Roman pagan society. The contrast between biblical Christianity and the idolatry of the nations is obvious. Likewise the community of the believers as set against the cynical individualism of our culture. The darkness of the world without Christ, versus the light that He brings. Bringing the Gospel in such a context is like bringing water to a woman dying of thirst.
The trouble is that the church seems to me to be less prepared to communicate that Gospel than we have been for 25 years. We have lost confidence in the Bible and in Christ and His Church. We need to stop battling to shut a door which has already closed, but instead be looking to the new open doors that God is setting before us. Leave the cultural Christianity to the various nationalist right wing groups who blasphemously name the name of Christ, but let us seek to exalt his name by proclaiming him throughout the whole of Europe.
Because God is God he usually does not tell us what he is going to do, and he is not reliant on our plans, procedures and programmes. Our task is to follow Jesus, to return to his Word and to stand amazed in humility as we see what he does. There is a famine of hearing the Word of the Lord. We have been given the Bread of Life. Surely we should do all we can to eat it, practise it and distribute it?