Re-evangalising secular Europe

Christian Today

Despite its Christian heritage, Europe is often seen to be the least religious continent of all. Its lands are scattered with empty cathedrals and quiet church halls that so often seem to stand more as relics of a bygone age than the centres of a vibrant spiritual life.

So when you hear of a plan aimed at turning secular, postmodern Europeans into Bible-believing Christians, you cannot help but admire the ambition, while at the same time feeling the need to remind yourself of what Jesus said in Matthew 19:26 - "With God all things are possible."

It's exactly this kind of plan that Dietrich Schindler says he was prompted to create by God. Speaking in a webinar organised by the Forum of Online Christian Leaders yesterday evening, Mr Schindler described his encounter with God on this issue.

"It began in January of last year," he explained. "I woke up very early on several nights and was prompted by God with this one thought."

The thought was: "Let us begin to think about engineering a new course for secular post-modern Europeans that will lead them totally into the Church of God and will lead to church planting."

Church planting is something that has been on Mr Schindler's mind for a long time. He's been involved in church planting in Germany since 1985, when he returned from America to the country of his parents.

In 2008 he was appointed head of church planting for the Evangelical Free Church of Germany. On his website, his biography declares that "under his leadership the denomination is seeking to plant 100 new churches in Germany in ten years".

To do that successfully, Mr Schindler points to a kind of bi-focal vision that the church needs. Speaking about Matthew 9:35-38, he points to how Jesus said "the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few".

"The future of the church needs a bifocal vision on both the harvest and the workers," Mr Schindler explained.

To demonstrate this further, he drew a comparison between a dying church and an expanding one.

"A dying church will focus on three things: their members, their youth, and their buildings and facilities."

He contrasted this to the outward looking mentality of a living church: "Good churches emphasise the harvest, the work of going into the harvest, and tending to those already in the barn."

A big part of how he hopes to enable churches to do this is through his new course, entitled My Life Workshop, which is specifically designed to appeal to the postmodern secular mindset of many Europeans.

In attempting to get to the root of the problem that many churches face reaching out to such a group, Mr Schindler said: "What they don't want is something pre-packaged. They do not want answers to questions that they themselves have not asked.

"They want something open ended, they want something where the outcome is less foreseeable."

It is that kind of organic, individually focused, less 'preachy' system that My Life Workshop seeks to offer.

The course is made up of six sessions lasting an hour and a half each, making it shorter than the popular Alpha course, which runs over 10 sessions.

The first session, entitled 'coin' sets the tone for the course as a whole. The first exercise starts with a story from the life of Apple founder Steve Jobs. He was adopted, and when his birth mother, a graduate student, gave him up for adoption, she stipulated that the parents must have a degree.

But the couple that ended up becoming Jobs parents, one of whom was a carpenter, did not have a degree. Despite this, the mother agreed to let them look after him because they promised they would set money aside and send him to university.

When Jobs went to a community college, he found all the required courses frustratingly boring. So he began taking electives in various things, and one of them was typography, which introduced him to the world of serifs, kerning, Bezier curves, and 'Greeked' text.

The course was so fascinating to him, that Jobs would later say that its influence spread into every single Apple computer, phone, and MP3 player that was ever produced.

The My Life Workshop invites participants to go on a thought exercise based on that story and on a set of Post-it notes, they can write down the various events and people that have shaped their lives today in a positive way.

A harder exercise follows where participants do the same thing, but this time for the negative experiences which are plotted on a timeline graph using only a few words to describe how they felt during each experience. This is what Mr Schindler calls the "My Life Map".

The session is called 'coin' because it emphasises that like a coin - the idea being that our lives are imprinted on in two distinct ways.

Participants are encouraged to consider a different kind of imprint, and to read and consider the first six verses of Psalm 139, which begins, "You have searched me, Lord, and you know me."

Mr Schindler believes it is more effective in reaching out to people in today's postmodern secular world if we start by asking them to look at their own life and then link to a Bible passage which will help them examine themselves.

While he praised Alpha for the amazing work it has done over the last four decades, he argued that it has some drawbacks in today's secularised Europe.

"With Alpha, you have to convince people that they need to be interested in Jesus first," he says. "With My Life Workshop, we focus on the self-love already present in most people, or narcissism in extreme cases."

This focus on the self comes out again in the second session, entitled 'book', where participants are encouraged to consider what they would entitle their biography and why, as well as the various chapters of their lives.

People are then asked to discuss with friends and family what they think of as "the good life", the ideal biography and how you can know whether you are living it or not.

Other sessions explore feelings of pointlessness, hopes and dreams, living with disappointment or unfulfilment, and the areas of life in which they can sense God to greater or lesser degrees.

Mr Schindler points to an example from his own life when a car he was in skidded violently over an icy patch of road.  Although he was facing danger, he described how he felt "a definite presence of God and I was sure that we would be safe".

Despite a lack of belief in God from many participants, this kind of experience is something Mr Schindler says many can relate to.

In the fifth unit, called 'band-aid', participants are invited to look at their life maps and identify the points where they experienced the greatest pain.  Again, the course tries to avoid any pre-packaged answers but they are encouraged to think about the pain and suffering of Jesus, and imagine what made Him choose to go through that. 

"Pain is the intersecting point, we have to ask ourselves what led to God taking on that pain voluntarily," he said. 

The final sessions looks at the idea of treasure and how what participants have had until now compares with the treasure of finding Jesus. 

Participants are then invited to read John 3:16, substituting their own names in the appropriate places, and by inspiring self-reflection and encouraging people to look inward before they look outward, Mr Schindler believes that he can change people's attitude towards themselves in such a way that leaves them more open to the Gospel.

"It leads to self reflection, which leads to evangelism," he says.

He also asks that people approach the course from a less traditional church mindset and even consider running the course outside of the church building. 

"The last place a non-Christian wants to go is your church building," he argues. 

Also less conventional is his request that churches agree to run the course at least twice - once in a location near to their church, and once in somewhere relatively under-churched and further afield.

The aim behind this is to lead to further church planting. As Mr Schindler puts it: "We need a church planting strategy that leads with conversion first."

And rather than offering the course in the form of a book, which would be much more expensive, the material is only available via a secure website.

This is done so that Mr Schindler and his team can track how the course is being used and how it is progressing, and make it easier to share feedback about how best to apply the course's aims.

While My Life Workshop is still in its very early stages, the few examples of its use so far have been successful. 

A particular surprise is the level of success seen in the formerly communist eastern German states where atheism is so common that Mr Schindler describes it as a place where "they have forgotten that they have forgotten about God".

In England, the course is likely to launch in Carlisle. 

At the end of the webinar, Mr Schindler gives a clear reminder of what it is all about: "The future of this movement is in those who are not yet Christians."

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