by Donald Dean Smeeton
Any effort to achieve adequately the goal promised by the title of this article will certainly suffer the fate of the six blind men who described the elephant.
Any effort to achieve adequately the goal promised by the title of this article will certainly suffer the fate of the six blind men who described the elephant. Each man assumed the whole of the elephant to be like the part that he touched. So the blind man touching the tail compared the elephant to a rope, while the one rubbing its leg concluded the animal was like a solid oak. Recognizing that any description of Europe will suffer from a similar degree of parochialism, I set forth the following observations with the hope that they will be modified by those better informed and that they will stimulate those concerned about Europe to a better understanding of the dynamics of the present opportunities.1
Each word of the title invites a challenge for a precise definition. Even the word "Europe"’ is not as obviously clear as one might assume. The Scandinavians tend to think of themselves as a unique group, just as the British are want to view their island as isolated from European concerns. Even the French and Germans sometimes find grounds for considering themselves apart from Europe as a whole. Because neither geographical (the continent), nor political ("free" Europe), nor military (the NATO nations), nor monetary (the Economic Community) definitions serve universally, the term "Europe" will represent the area of central Europe that is most firmly within my experience. Although this limits "Europe" primarily to Belgium, Holland, France, Luxemburg, Germany and Switzerland, the observations are perhaps valid to some degree for the rest of the elephant as well.
The term "trend" is so slippery that perhaps one can only speak of events or happenings. What presently appears to be a trend might, in the future, prove to be only a few days of Indian summer. Nevertheless, some reflections, however tentative, might help identify general weaknesses. Likewise, providing a definition of "evangelical" that would be satisfactory appears impossible, so it will suffice to observe only that European Christians usually give the word a broader definition than do North Americans.
Even the self-imposed time limitation needs some justification. Certainly the end of a decade is a natural time to evaluate the past, but the past decade is a distinct unit because of the basic social, economic, political, and psychological changes that set this decade apart from previous ones. The ferment within European social structures – ferment that had survived two World Wars (basically European wars) – reached the explosive point in the May, 1968, riots in France. Students, joined by the working class, not only provoked education reform and toppled a national government, but also sparked social changes that are now profoundly affecting European education, attitudes, and social classes. In May, 1968, the European train switched tracks and no one yet knows the new destination.
Although certain European nations can boast centuries of democracy, until May, 1968, individuals were denied many of the personal choices that characterize the "American way of life." The forms of society, i.e., class, family, church, education, and so on that had provided both the individual’s identity and security were replaced by greater personal choice.
One consequence of this individualization is that membership in the social institutions has declined. The state churches, whether their theological orientation is Catholic, Lutheran, or Calvinistic, have suffered dwindling memberships and resources. A recent survey by the Center for the Study of World Evangelization (Nairobi), measured this drain at 1,815,000 people in a single twelve-month period.2 In Belgium, attendance at mass dropped 30 percent between 1967 and 1976.3
Before 1970, Continental theology was dominated by a trinity German-speaking B’s (Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Brunner), whose searchings tasted like honey in the mouth, but in the last decade their conclusions turned to bitterness in the stomach. Vatican II’s aggiormanento, reflecting the Roman Catholic version of the individualization, has polarized the progressives, who follow men like Hans Kung, from the conservatives led by Marcel Lefebvre. The selection of Archbishop Wojtyla to become Pope John Paul II might prove to be the most significant religious event of the decade, not because he is the first non-Italian pope in 500 years, but because he has chosen, with remarkable personal power and flair, to reaffirm traditional institutional values. European Catholics, like many Protestants, have become bewildered by theological pluralism. Being unable to offer a "Thus saith the Lord," religious institutions have been plagued with uncertainty and insecurity.
These changes in European society in general and in institutional Christianity in particular provide unparalleled opportunities for evangelical initiatives. Thus, identification of evangelical trends in Europe should provide guidance in pursuing these opportunities.
Trend 1. The past decade produced a growing desire for evangelical cooperation. As growing indifference has characterized the state churches, they have become less strident with splintered evangelical minority. Perhaps partially because of this change, evangelicals have grown less defensive and less imprisoned by the "survival-is-good-enough" mentality. Evangelicals, realizing numerical growth and growing freedom from debilitating attitudes, have discovered a greater willingness to cooperate. At the beginning of the decade, the European Congress on Evangelism (Amsterdam 1972) did not even attempt a common statement or strategy,4 but during the decade a number of international and interconfessional evangelical organizations were formed which give visibility to this new openness. For example, the Fellowship of European Evangelical Theologians (founded 1976) promises to provide a forum to stimulate evangelical theology.5 Following the lead of Third World evangelicals, European evangelicals finally agreed on a European Accrediting Association for Bible Colleges and Seminaries. In one sense, this newly realized unity has made all of the other trends possible.
Unfortunately, one group has not generally been included in this new unity. In spite of their numerical strength, Pentecostals have sometimes found themselves peeking over the wall of partitions at evangelical happenings. For example, the German Evangelical Alliance’s refusal to. allow Pentecostal membership is symptomatic of general suspicions. Ironically, evangelicals can have more sympathy for Pentecostals on the other side of the Iron Curtain than on the other side of town. By forcing the Pentecostals to overcome past sins and present suspicions, evangelicals deny themselves the fullness of their new unity.
A similiar situation is created by the presence of a growing charismatic movement within the older Protestant churches even as the Catholic counterpart, coming increasingly under priestly control, appears to have leveled off. The Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship International can boast 35 chapters in Germany alone and their Voice magazine is published in five languages. But because of its interconfessional nature and its stress on experience, it has sometimes stimulated anxieties among the churches, even among the Pentecostal groups.
Certainly as European evangelicals continue to discover the unity described in Christ’s prayer (John 17), they will also find the unity in the Spirit. Such a united witness should continue to gain credibility in a fragmented Europe.
Trend 2: The past decade has produced greater exploitation of printed materials. Europeans are insatiable readers. A trip to the local newstand or magazine store is a daily exercise for many Europeans.
A decade ago, the evangelical book market was dominated by children’s fiction and translations of nineteenth century AngloSaxon evangelists. French evangelicals were bound the dated biblical translation of Louis Second. But the past decade provided four new French translations or editions: Bonnes Nouvelles Aujourd’hui (1972); parole Vivante (1976); La Colombe (1978) and a French edition of the Scofield Reference Bible. Record Bible sales indicate interest in Scripture even outside the evangelical minority. Creative children’s materials, as well as popular apologetics, found an eager market. The two francophone publishers, Editions Emmaus in Switzerland and Editeurs de la Literature Biblique in Belgium, experienced major expansions. As additional evidence of this trend, one notes the popular Icthus magazine has been joined by a more academic theological journal Hokhma.6
Trend 3: The decade has produced a growing concern for evangelism and missions. For previous generations, membership in a religious institution provided such a basic identification that proselytizing was considered bad social form. In many places, evangelicals likewise settled into passive church membership, combined with a persecuted minority mentality, creating a natural barrier to outreach.
The past decade, in contrast, showed evangelicals taking many evangelistic initiatives. On the local level this new aggressiveness resulted in new churches or a move from a rented hall to a permanent building. But this change is best illustrated by the larger and more visible events. A number of Billy Graham crusades, for example, Eurofest 1975, provided opportunities for evangelical cooperation and visibility. A number of church growth conventions have combined inspiration and savoir faire. This trend provides a solid foundation for future harvest.
The clearest indication of renewed interest in missions can be seen in the two Urbana-like meetings (Mission 76 and Mission 80) held at Lausanne, Switzerland. These meetings were planned and executed by a small core of committed young people who stunned the critics by making the impossible possible.
Yet in spite of this concern for evangelism and missions, the pattern of church growth has not been impressive. Apart from exceptions like the Evangelical Free Churches in Flemish Belgium or Vokhart Spitzer’s Christliche Zentrum. in Berlin, church growth has been modest. The student mission meetings in Lausanne suffer, like their American counterpart, from not having proven machinery to channel the results. Few young people seem to make the leap from the altar call to the alien culture.
Trend 4: The decade has witnessed a growing concern for theological education. The evangelical ministerial training institutions have experienced mushroom growth in both their number and their size. It would be hard to find an institution that has not grown during the decade, and some have grown as much as 400 percent. (The theological faculties in the major universities have shared this growth, but perhaps for different reasons.)
Evangelicals can now boast five university- level theological schools: Faculte Libre de Theologie Evangelique (Vaux-sur-Seine, France), Freie Evangelische Theologiche Akademie (Basel, Switzerland), Faculte Libre de Theologie Reforme (Aix-en-Province, France), Freie Theologische Akademie (Seeheim, West Germany) and the newest faculty at the Belgian Bible Institute (Heverlee, Belgium). It is remarkable that all of these institutions, except one, were founded during the period, 1970-1980. Greater Europe Mission, which already operates a dozen schools in Europe, projects a new English language seminary in the near future.
The Pietistische Studsienzentrum bengel-Haus, founded in 1969, is employing a creative approach to evangelical theological balance and spiritual care to students in the university program. This program has met with warm approval by evangelicals in the state church in Germany.
If God should continue to grant time, the students in these rap idly- expanding schools will make a profound impact. They are the buds of spring which promise the full fruit of summer.
This silver cloud has, however, a darkened lining. Many of the evangelical training schools have only vague or tenuous ties to the churches which they profess to serve. Many graduates find the step from class to church to be difficult, or impossible. Usually the schools require major support from North America, or from individuals within Europe, so the European churches sometimes see these institutions as distant and unresponsive to their desires. These educational institutions must constantly reevaluate their church connections – Christ’s affirmation was not that he would build his college, but that he would build his church.
For American readers who are geared to consider missions in terms of "unreached people," "people movements," and 11 sweeping revivals," it is easy to forget Europe’s semi-pagan and secular sinners. The report of evangelical trends in Europe is not overwhelmingly good, but it does hold a powerful promise. The ground is arid, but on the horizon is a cloud the size of a man’s hand. May God grant many Elijahs to announce that he who is greater than Elijah has come to save Europe from its own secularity.
1. Recent monographs on Europe include: William L. Wagner, New Move Forward in Europe: Growth Patterns of German Speaking Baptists in Europe (South Pasadena, CA. : William Carey Library, 1978): Wallace Henley, Europe at the Crossroads: A Reporter Looks at Europe’s Spiritual Crisis (Westchester, IL.: Good News, 1978); Wayne Detzler, The Changing Church in Europe (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan)
2. "Survey Shows Gains and Losses, " EMQ, XV, 2 (Oct. , 1979), p 228.
3. "La pratique religieuse en baisse partout: purquoi?" l’evenement Gan. 19, 1980), p. 1146.
4. Gilbert Kirby, ed., Evangelism Alert (London: World Wide Publications, 1972).
5. See John Warwick Montgomery, "A Report on F.E.E.T. " Christianity Today XXIII (Dec. 15, 1978), pp. 380, 382.
6. Hokhma, Revue Theologique, Case postale 242, 1000 Lausanne 22, Switzerland.
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