by Robert P. Evans
When it comes to planting churches in Europe, what should a missionary do? There are at least four possibilities.
Although there are roughly 2,000 career and short-term workers in Europe from missions affiliated with the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association and the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association, Europe still trails far behind other continents in the ratio of missionaries to population. Since the 1960s an increasing number of career workers have arrived, but, as on any mission field, some become discouraged, homesick, or are just unsuited in language acquisition, cultural adaptation, or temperament. Still others become defeated spiritually.
On top of that, church planting is not easy in Europe. Some missiologists, Arthur F. Glasser, for example, think the reason for this is the wrong methods used by missionaries in the past. ("Reflections on the American Missionary Presence in Western Europe," World Mission Associates, 1986.)
To me, this is a dubious oversimplication. It overlooks, for example, the fact that rationalistic attacks on supernaturalism have a long history in Europe. Especially since the 1960s, all of Europe has seen a steady deterioration of public morality, a rise in sexual permissiveness, and an attack on authority. A new cult of self-sufficiency has challenged the dogmatic values of the past. Both Roman Catholic and Protestant sociologists have carefully documented this trend, which has caused immense losses in church membership and in attendance at worship services.
History also shows that European denominations have been impervious to outside renewal influences, which began in the 18th century and greatly accelerated in the 19th. The roles of foreign churches, missions, and organizations, while intense and salutary, were short-lived. The last real victory of evangelicals in the French Reformed Church, for example, came at the Synod of 1872, when they won a majority.
Although some European church leaders do not welcome missionaries because, for theological reasons, they do not see their countries as mission fields, evangelical leaders generally welcome them, provided they come with plans to include European partnership and ultimate leadership.
For example, Andre Thobois, president of the French Baptist Federation, welcomes church planters as coworkers. About a quarter of the Baptist pastors of France and the Netherlands have been trained in missionary-led institutions. The Independent Reformed Church of France has some missionary pastors, and their seminary at Aix-en-Provence has foreign professors. Foreign missionaries also serve in the Evangelical Free Church Union of France. The French Evangelical Federation sponsors a workshop on church planting led by both nationals and missionaries.
But given the historic Christian presence in Europe, how do evangelical missionaries from North America fit in? Of course, many of them do not come from the mainline denominations that issued from the Reformation, so they find it hard to identify with the Reformed-Lutheran bloc that makes up 85 percent of Europe’s Protestants. Then, too, the evangelical missionaries would not accept the rationalistic views of the Bible prevalent in Europe.
Probably the hardest issues they face have to do with the nature of the church and its ordinances. In contrast to most of Europe’s Protestants, many evangelical missionaries hold that the church is autonomous and observes two ordinances (not sacraments), believers’ baptism and the Lord’s Supper as a memorial. Their evangelism, discipleship, and church planting are based on these doctrinal convictions.
Many of them would also refuse financing, or any form of control, of the churches by the state, a practice followed to some degree or another in every major European country.
The evangelical missionaries do recognize a kinship with Europe’s "confessing" churches that accept as members only those who give a testimony of personal faith in Christ and demonstrate consistent Christian living.
On the other hand, relations with the historic churches in Europe are made more difficult because of their strong ties with the World Council of Churches. The WCC claims 79.7 million Europeans through its member churches, which provide 71 percent of the council’s total budget. West Germany alone furnishes over half of that budget. The missionaries do maintain close ties with evangelicals both inside and outside of both the older and younger churches.
So, when it comes to planting churches in Europe, what should a missionary do? It seems to me that there are at least four possibilities: remain independent; join an existing denomination; create a national branch of one’s home denomination; start a wholly new denomination. Each has some merit and missionaries in Europe have used them all.
For example, Europe could use some new, imported evangelical denominations in certain situations, provided they become truly European and do not over-fragment the body of Christ. History is replete with examples of how God has done this in the past, bringing new life through movements that sprang up when existing churches appeared almost moribund and decaying. This is the story of the Methodists. John Wesley hoped his movement would remain in the Church of England, but such was not to be. The Holy Spirit is not obliged to use a corroded instrument, but will often seek a new one.
It’s not healthy for a single denomination or bloc to monopolize a country. When it becomes doctrinally corrupt, or spiritually decadent, the people have no chance to hear the gospel. The Reformed Church in France is a case in point. Church leaders and seminary professors publicly ridiculed Billy Graham for his belief in eternal punishment. They said that he should speak to abortion, social, racial, and economic injustice in his 1986 Mission France campaign.
This largely liberal church, concerned about the rapid growth of evangelicals, commissioned a survey in 1981 to investigate the trend. Leaders were startled by the reported appearance of hundreds of new evangelical churches and complained to some American evangelical leaders about the invasion of American missionaries.
Is such an "invasion" justified? Is missionary "competition" a waste? The truth is, missionaries in Europe often work with denominations, but they are selective, seeking to avoid theological and ecclestiastical compromise, as well as the spiritual torpor of the past. "Competition" is hardly the way to describe church planting in Europe when you consider the critical need.
Out of 37,708 towns or cities in France, there are Reformed churches in about 1,200 and attendance is low. How could church planting be a threat in those circumstances? Rather than competing, the missionaries serve as an impetus for churches to start outreaches of their own.
Missionaries realize that in the present climate of theological liberalism, it is highly unlikely for a new base of biblical evangelism to arise in the old churches. That’s why they started at least 400 new gospel churches in France between 1972 and 1982. There are now perhaps 2,000 evangelical churches in France outside the Reformed-Lutheran bloc, most of them quite small. Some were started by evangelical denominations and some by independent boards.
Take a look at Spain, with its 8,022 cities and towns, 7,559 of which have no evangelical church. Of the larger towns of more than 5,000 people, 683 have no evangelical church or even a single believer, as far as is known. Within the last three years, however, churches have opened in 59 towns in the 5,000 population category. Some 80 percent of the new churches were planted by missionaries. About half are affiliated with existing denominations and half are independent or belong to newer groups.
Perhaps the most difficult and confusing church scene for missionary church planters is in West Germany. Protestants account for 45 percent of the population, Catholics claim a few more. Evangelicals make up nine or 10 percent and their leaders often refer to their country as a mission field.
West Germany is dominated by the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKD), a loose federation of 17 territorial Lutheran and Reformed denominations. Members pay the church tax to the state, eight or nine percent of which is returned to the member’s church. Several million members have dropped out since 1970, blaming the tax, but evangelicals within the EKD blame it on the churches’ liberalism.
The EKD itself fears the loss of one-third of its members by the year 2,000, if the present rate continues. Except on special occasions, the churches are virtually empty. Only five percent attend church regularly; two percent in the larger cities. There is a shortage of pastors.
The evangelical pietist movement exerts a strong influence in the EKD. They speak against liberal theology, which, they say, has eroded the faith of most of the 12,463 pastors. At the same time, they stress the new birth and biblical orthodoxy within their own gemeinschaften, groups that meet separately for services with their own pastors, a kind of church within a church. They do not intend to break away.
The Gnadau Union, the largest, has 300,000 members, 700 pastors, 28 chapters in Germany, two in Austria, and one in the Netherlands. The leader, Kurt Heimbucher, says pietism can’t gain ascendancy in the EKD, but is rather "a strong current." The pietists often participate in evangelism with the free churches, which make up about six percent of the Protestants. Some missionaries serve in pietist circles, but considering the strength of the movement, they could very well be more useful in truly pioneer situations.
Some graduates of evangelical missionary Bible schools become pastors and staff workers in various EKD churches. Students from EKD churches regularly study at these schools.
At the same time, some German evangelicals believe it’s important not only to try to renew the EKD from within but also to start new churches that can determine their own affiliation. The Conference for Church Planting has 1,500 members and encourages new efforts in both urban and rural areas. Conference leaders point out that in one huge urban church of 1,800 Sunday morning attendance averages eight people and in another with 7,000 members, there are less than 100 worshipers. Therefore, it’s quite valid to plant new churches with born-again pastors who believe the Bible and who lead their people in evangelistic growth.
In sum, God has blessed the church-planting efforts of both missionaries-who have themselves founded several thousand churches-and their European disciples. Over 3,000 students now study in missionary-led Bible institutes and seminaries in 15 countries. The graduates of one school alone have begun over 400 churches. Many evangelists as well as denominational leaders have been trained at mission schools. Training Europeans to plant churches in Europe is paying off.
As far as the future role of church-planting missionaries in Europe is concerned, there is room for those who choose to do it with existing denominations and room for those who want to start independent churches or new denominations. Europe needs them all. Europe needs unity, not rancor, among church-planting missionaries.
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