by Kenneth C. Harper
An estimated 160 million people in Europe make no profession of religion. Among those who still claim allegiance to Christianity there are few who take their religion seriously.
A phenomenon of twentieth century missiology is the breakdown since World War II of the accepted distinction between "Eurica" (the sending countries) and "Afericasia" (the mission-field). The bastions of European Christendom that were responsible for the surge of missionary activity in the nineteenth century are themselves now being seen as mission fields.
An estimated 160 million people in Europe make no profession of religion. Among those who still claim allegiance to Christianity there are few who take their religion seriously. France, though nominally Roman Catholic, is the most pagan country in Europe. Fear and superstition abound, especially in the rural areas, and more and more people are turning to spiritism; so much so, that the Roman Catholic Church now regards France as a mission field, in England 66 percent of the Population are baptized by the Church of England; 26 percent go on to confirmation; but only 9 percent remain as regular churchgoers. In the state churches of Europe the situation is even worse…. By no stretch of the imagination can Europe be called a Christian continent.1
What about northern, Protestant Europe? Here, too, the picture is dismal. "Although ninety-five percent (estimated on a count of infant baptisms) of the population may claim affiliation with the Lutheran or Roman Catholic Church, only about five percent of German people attend any church.. . . (in Sweden too) less than five percent are regular church attenders; in fact, the church is losing members at an alarming rate."2 How does one explain this state of affairs?
THE SECULARIZATION THESIS
Most contemporary sociologists explain the demise of Christendom by the "secularization thesis." In this view, Christianity, which for centuries was the dominant cultural influence of western civilization, has now lost its influence; people are now far more motivated by a de-Christianized secular outlook.3 In itself, the thesis is merely descriptive; its interpretation varies from scholar to scholar. Some greet the collapse of Christendom with unmitigated glee, others dispassionately, still others sadly or prophetically. Yet all accept it. Even those sociologists who claim to reject the secularization thesis only reject a form which they regard as untenable, but they then accept other forms called by different names. One example is Andrew M. Greeley who, in his Religion in the Year 2000, says that religious activity will abound in the twenty-first century. The nature of this religious activity, however, is far more humanistic than Christocentric and would scarcely satisfy any evangelical Christian. For Greeley, "anthropology" (in the European sense of a comprehensive philosophy of man) and sexuality will be religion’s primary concerns.4
Yet man is an innately religious being. Paul wrote that those who abandoned true worship of God fell, not into religious inaction, but into idolatry (Romans 1:25). When Europe abandoned Christianity, a legion of lesser deities sought to fill the vacuum, though no modern pantheon formally gathers them under one roof: Existentialism, humanism, Marxism, materialism, hedonism, Eastern religions, and spiritism all vie with Christianity for the allegiance of men’s lives.
A THEOLOGICAL EXPLANATION
The consensus of modern thought, liberal and evangelical, Christian and non-Christian, is agreed as to the state of contemporary Europe. It is this article’s central thesis that the current state of Christianity in Europe is the result of an apostate rejection of Christian culture and thought. For us, this concept is key since it explains the difficulties of Western fields, especially in Europe but also increasingly in the United States. F. F. Bruce comments on Hebrews 6:4-6:
Those who have shared the covenant privileges of the people of God, and then deliberately renounce them, are the most difficult persons of all to reclaim for the faith. It is indeed impossible to reclaim them, says our author. We know, of course, that nothing of this sort is ultimately impossible for the grace of God, but as a matter of human experience the reclamation of such people is, practically speaking, impossible. People are frequently immunized against a disease by being inoculated with a mild form of it, or with a related but milder disease. And in the spiritual realm, experience suggests that it is possible to be "immunized" against Christianity by being inoculated with something which, for the time being, looks so like the real thing that it is generally mistaken for it.5
C. S. Lewis used a most apt analogy when he remarked:
When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into paganism, I am tempted to reply, "Would that she were." . . . For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is essentially the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The post-Christian man of our day differs from him as much as a divorcee’ differs from a virgin.6
The apostasy theory of European Christianity is not, it must be admitted, universally accepted. Those theologians of a liberal or radical bent see the current post-Christian secularization as the manifestation of God for the twentieth century.7 In every case, however, the biblical dichotomy between the Christian and the non-Christian is disregarded and evangelization is reduced to humanization.
WHY THE SHIFT?
The historical question that must be asked is this: What was happening in Europe in the eighteenth century that can be held responsible for this debacle?
Two factors coverged. First, the challenges to Christianity were seldom more severe on the one hand. Yet, on the other, the church lacked the spiritual, moral, and intellectual resources with which to deal with them. Two types of shortcomings abounded, and these defaced Christendom’s witness such that it shone less brightly than at any previous time. The first class of failures were those of the intellect and doctrine. The Reformation had rediscovered the great truth of man’s salvation by grace. Unfortunately, this doctrinal reform did not penetrate the Catholic Church. The Council of Trent, which convened sporadically throughout the midsixteenth century, partially provided for much-needed moral reform-but not for doctrinal reformation. Among Protestants, the excellence of Reformation theology declined into the dry scholasticism of the seventeenth century. Doctrinal inadequacy left the church incapable of effectively dealing with the welter of contradictory philosophies formulated in the eighteenth century.
The second shortcoming was moral in character. The gap that separated the ideals of the gospel from the practices of the church was so wide as to offend any reasonable observer of the European scene. The Thirty-Years War was still in the minds of Europeans–one of the most destructive and brutal wars of European history. Incredibly, however, the ThirtyYears War was religious, fought between professing Christians! Sectarian persecution, burnings, and the Inquisition added to the spectacle.
Another moral shortcoming of the church was its preoccupation with the wealthy and bourgeosie to the exclusion of peasants and workers. The privileged state of the church encouraged maintenance of the status quo and blindness to the deplorable social conditions.8
At the same time, an impressive number of thinkers were challenging the truth of Christianity. Rousseau, Voltaire, and the philosophes were responsible for the wave of naturalistic thought in France. In Germany, Kant and Lessing spearheaded a rationalism that was to bear fruit in the higher-critical theories of the nineteenth century. The British Deists, Hobbes and Hume, were representatives of yet another counter-philosophy to Christianity. The result was confusion and inadequate rebuttal by orthodox Christians. Too, it must be said the Europeans gladly forsook the faith of their fathers without a second thought or regret. The enticing philosophies that made man the center of intellectual thought were naturally attractive to the adamic nature that yearns for independence from God. C. S. Lewis noted perceptively that the first statements of man’s evolutionary climb to perfection, Keats’ Hyperion and The Ring of Niebelung by Wagner, were penned before any scientific evidence existed to support it. By the time Darwin’s work was published forty years later, the way was already prepared for its acceptance.9
Francis Schaeffer, in Death in the City, writes:
At times men think of the two words, reformation and revival, as standing in contrast one to the other, but this is a mistake. Both words are related to the word restore.
Reformation refers to a restoration to pure doctrine; revival refers to a restoration in the Christian’s life. Reformation speaks of a return to the teachings of Scripture; revival speaks of a life brought into its proper relationship to the Holy Spirit.
The great moments of church history have come when these two restorations have simultaneously come into action so that the church has returned to pure doctrine and the lives of Christians in the church have known the power of the Holy Spirit.10
Since the eighteenth century church failed at these two points of doctrine and morality, it is logical to assume that if a reversal, is to occur, both must be restored. It is surely beyond the scope of this article to blueprint in detail a complete program for European missions; therefore, a "freehand sketch" will be attempted as an alternative.
To some extent, the prelude to theological recovery is in progress in Europe. The foundational efforts were undertaken primarily in Britain and the United States-both of which have been key contributors to the renaissance of evangelical scholarship that had its genesis in the late 1940’s. The contributions of numerous scholars restored an intellectual confidence to evangelicals that had been lost in the modernist-fundamentalist battles of the teens and twenties. Only on a sturdy scholarly base could the full "undemythologized" gospel be confidently preached and taught. Heretical liberal theology conveyed the impression that all scholarship was on its side; the recovery of an evangelical scholarship was thus a key in reaching the urbane and educated European with the gospel.
Having recovered a biblical doctrine built on a firm scholarly foundation, the next obvious step is dissemination. In Europe this is currently not being done by the theological faculties of universities, though even here there may be -a ray of light on the horizon.11 The bulk of evangelical instruction is being carried out at recently formed Bible institutes. Despite the educational and financial difficulties under which these schools labor, they are discharging biblically-trained men into the European pastorate. Evangelical seminaries, too, are emerging where none were before. In Vaux-sur-Seine, east of Paris, a fully-accredited seminary is functioning that prepares evangelicals for pastorates in established churches. Seminaries for Spain and Germany are getting started.
Theological education in Europe, however, has been greatly hampered by the unavailability of evangelical writings in European languages. Very few works are translated and published, and those which are often go out of print swiftly. The choice facing continental pastors and Christian workers is either to learn English or to do without helpful evangelical productions. Translation of useful works and financial support of money-losing evangelical publishers would be a boon indeed.
The restoration of morality is a different and less direct matter. It involves putting into practice Jesus’ command of John 13:35, "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (RSV). The implementation of this cannot take place without the Holy Spirit. Fortunately, a rediscovery of the church as a Spiritfilled and loving community has taken place in some quarters of the church. Francis Schaeffer credits the "lived-out" Christianity of L’Abri as the key to its use by God in ministering to twentieth century men and women.12 Would that existing evangelical churches in Europe would redouble their efforts to witness through their concerned lives.
I would add a third dimension to the recovery of witness in Europe. An analogy might be found in the fact that a gourmet’s jaded palate requires an unusual meal to excite it. Likewise, an apostate Europe that has grown jaded on an empty form of Christianity needs an unusual presentation of it to jar attention and win allegiance. "Unusual" ministries such as coffee houses, book tables, and folk-singing groups are meeting with success. The French "Hour of Decision," for example, employs folk-rock and "soft" rock music as a setting for the evangelistic sermon. Innovative radio holds unusually rich potential for disseminating the gospel, since (unlike television) ingenuity and creativity, not production costs, are the primary limiting factors. It is hoped that other innovative, creative ministries can be developed in Europe to bring the Christian message to those who otherwise would turn a deaf ear.
Finally, let us emphasize that spiritual need should be the sole criterion to govern missionary giving. Unfortunately, there is much truth in the cliche’ that missionary giving rises in direct proportion to the field’s distance (geographic and cultural) from home. A worker whose deputation slide presentation can include such exotica as semi-clad natives and poisonous snakes finds it easier to raise support than the European missionary whose backdrop is Paris or Rome. Neither Europe’s rich cultural heritage nor its high level of material prosperity disqualify it as a mission field, any more than similar factors disqualified Athens from Paul’s work (Acts 17:16-34).
God is not through with Europe. Gentle winds of revival are blowing there. We would fervently hope and pray that the continent on which Christianity found the most fertile soil might some day return to the faith as the prodigal son returned to his father. To that end we work with God.
1. J. Herbert Kane, A Global View of Christian Missions: From Pentecost to the Present (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 536.
2. W. Stuart Harris, Ed., Eyes on Europe (Chicago: Moody Press, 1970), pp. 59, 116.
3. Peter L. Berger,, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1970), pp. 1,2.
4. Andrew M. Greeley, Religion in the Year 2000 (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1969), p. 113.
5. F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, "The New International Commentary on the New Testament" (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), pp. 118-19.
6. C. S. Lewis, "Is Theism Important?" in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. by Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 172.
7. For one example, cf. Harvey Cox, The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1966), passim. For a refutation of Cox, cf. Jacques Ellul, The Meaning of the City (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), passim.
8. The sole exception was the Wesleyan revival in England which had profound effects on social attitudes and legislation. It must be noted, too, that the Wesleys were forced to operate outside the bounds of the established churches.
9. C. S. Lewis, "The Funeral of a Great Myth" in Christian Reflections, ed. by Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), p. 84.
10. Francis A. Schaeffer, Death in the City (Downers Grove, III: Inter-Varsity Press, 1969), p. 12.
11. John R. W. Stott related to me in a discussion (November 28, 1972) that when he did his divinity work at Trinity College, Cambridge, there was not a single evangelical on any theological faculty in England. Today, he says there are between twenty-five and thirty. Moreover, he estimates that fully a third of the ministerial candidates in the Anglican Church today are evangelicals.
12. In an interview with the author, July 6, 1973. Cf., The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1970), pp. 105-112.
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