by Sharon E. Mumper
Reports from around the world.
Europe: Out of the rags of disillusionment
Europe is a drunken old woman lying in the gutter, beaten, robbed, cynical, hard. Such is evangelist Luis Palau’s portrait of a jaded, disillusioned people. But there is hope, he says. "When you pick up the rags of this old lady, you find a little baby screaming its head off. To me, that baby is the young generation of Europeans inwardly screaming for revival."
In Europe, church attendance continues to plummetâ€”a fact that, surprisingly, does not discourage Stanley L. Davies, general secretary of the Evangelical Missionary Alliance in the United Kingdom. "This means nominalism is fading; it is no longer popular to go to church. I see the decrease in nominal numbers as positive. While nominalism is declining, the evangelical church in Europe is vibrant."
Mainline church membership in Great Britain continues a steady decline that began decades ago. Church statisticians warn that by the 21st Century Islam could replace Christianity as the dominant religion in England. By 1985, only 11 percent of Britons belonged to a church, according to the 1987/88 U.K. Christian Handbook.
Nevertheless, some groups are enjoying remarkable growth. Although the house church movement comprises only 200,000 people, it is the fastest-growing segment of the church, Davies says. "Some of that growth has been at the expense of mainline denominations. Many people have become fed up with the emptiness of institutional religion in the ecumenical churches. In the house churches, they have found warmth and encouragement to worship in their own style." Davies says although some associated with the house church movement are exclusive, others are open to interchurch fellowship and cooperation.
Even in many of the mainline churches a vital charismatic renewal movement has injected new lifeâ€”and warm bodiesâ€”into once-echoing sanctuaries.
Evangelicals comprise only 7 percent of the population of the U.K., according to Patrick Johnstone’s Operation World. Nevertheless, through the Evangelical Alliance, they are gaining increasing visibility. Under General Secretary Clive Calver, the organization has addressed spiritual and moral issues affecting the church and the nation. "This is bringing the social conscience back into evangelicalism," says Davies.
As the church in the U.K. declined in size, the Protestant missionary force tumbled from 7,500 in 1972 to 5,800 last year. Most of the 20 percent loss may be attributed to ecumenical groups, Davies says. If present trends continue, the missionary force could be halved by the year 2000. Organizations that belong to the Evangelical Missionary Alliance field some 3,100 missionaries. But even these agencies forecast a reduced missionary force if they cannot reverse current trends.
The length of service for evangelical missionaries has steadily decreased from an average of 15 to 20 years to a current average stay of about 12 years. Demand for better educated, more mature missionaries has pushed up the age of missionary candidates, who now are taking older children to the field.
As these children reach high school age, many parents return home to put their children in school. Formerly, the government funded the education of missionary children in boarding schools in the U.K. This money is no longer available. Furthermore, Christian families face increased social pressure not to place their children in boarding schools, even when they can afford it.
These trends have caused considerable consternation in evangelical missions ranks. The Personnel Task Force of the Evangelical Missionary Alliance has been assigned to search for answers to the dilemma.
A more encouraging trend is the upsurge of student interest in missions. A Mission 2000 gathering next summer is expected to draw some 3,000 young people ages 16 to 30. This is a regional congress of the The European Missionary Association (TEMA), whose missions conference last year attracted some 11,000 young people from throughout Europe.
Signs of new life may be detected among the old woman’s rags. A new generation is beginning to rise like a fresh young phoenix from the ashes of tired disillusionment. Whether these hopeful stirrings produce a vigorous, growing church—
and an equally vital missions movement—
remains to be seen.
ISLAM: The sleeping giant awakes
For centuries it seemed Islam slumbered in its Middle Eastern home and Asian outposts. But two decades ago, the giant awoke and when it began to test its massive strength and enormous reach it was bigger than anyone had imagined. Today, a resurgent, aggressive Islam dares the world to underestimate its power.
The giant has sprawled far beyond its Middle Eastern cradle. Nearly one in five people in the world today is a Muslim. Half of all Muslims are Asians; only a fifth of the world’s Muslims live in the Middle East.
Yet, the Middle East continues to rule Islam. "The missionary fervor is coming from the Middle East," says Middle East expert C. George Fry. "Traditionally, the Middle East has modeled Islam; they are the mentors of the world Islamic community."
Mecca, the Saudi Arabian birthplace of Islam, annually draws millions of pilgrims from scores of countries, and is a unifying symbol for the world’s Muslims. The Muslim brotherhoods that cut across national borders were spawned in the Middle East. The world’s Muslims look to the Middle East for the model Islamic state. Oil wealthâ€”and accompanying influenceâ€”flows from "the cradle of Islam to its impoverished outposts.
In the Middle East, Christianity is on the wane as random violence against Christians drives out the better educated, more affluent leaders. "In some places, good things are happening," says Fry. "Even some Orthodox churches are experiencing renewal and growth. But by and large, the Christian population is moving out." Surprisingly, the church is growing both in quality and numbers in Iran, the Middle East’s most radically Islamic state.
Iran most graphically illustrates the revived fundamentalist Islam of the last two decades. "Islam doesn’t distinguish between political and religious activities," says Fry. "Society must please God through its public expression." This explains the constant goading of Muslim populations for the establishment of Sharia, Islamic law, as the law of the land.
"People like Khomeini and Khaddafi have upped the ante in even moderate Islamic states," says Fry. "They have raised the price of commitment to Islam." It has become increasingly difficult for political leaders to claim to be Muslim in faith and Western in governing style.
Even in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, militant groups intent on establishing Sharia threaten moderate Muslim governments. Meanwhile, growth of Muslim populations in many countries outpaces that of Christian and other groups. Rapid biological growth will make Islam the largest world religion by the start of the next century, says Fry. Through dispersion and immigration, Islam will be more widespread. Muslims will be confident, assertive, and militant.
Despite this, many Muslims now are more open to Christianity than previously. Some are disillusioned by the war between two Muslim countries, or by the harshness of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s brand of Islam. "If Khomeini is Islam, tell me about Christianity," said one Muslim woman. "Khomeini may be the best thing ever to happen to Christian missions," says Fry, "if we can present a winsome Christian alternative."
Many influential Muslim people are more available for Christian witness than ever before, as students, businesspeople, and diplomats travel to Western countries. "They are everywhere," says Fry. "They love to talk about religion; they want to see you practice your religion." Sadly, few Muslims away from home ever get to know a Western Christian.
Muslims are looking for spiritual meaning in life, says Fry. They are willing to give their lives for a high spiritual purpose. "Christians have thought that if the Middle East were to become secularized, Muslims could be more easily won to Christ," he says. "But we are seeing that faith speaks to faith."
Muslim witness must be more than words. "Muslims are basically talking power," says Fry. "Our theology must come to grips with power encounter. We need a theology of power; we must prove that Jesus delivers." Muslims are keenly aware of the supernatural. Former Muslims frequently talk of having had a dream or vision prior to their conversion.
"Western Christians are not accustomed to this," says Fry. "But the extraordinary supernatural manifestation is typical in Muslim conversions." Today, perhaps more than ever before, God is working among Muslims, and in some places Christians are seeing a previously unimaginable responsiveness.
At the same time, the task is greater than ever before. "When the modern missions movement started with William Carey in 1793, there were 800 million to 1 billion people in the world," says Fry. "Today, there are that many Muslims alone." The sleeping giant is awake now and rattling the world centers of power as it flexes its muscles and tests its newfound strength.
This is not the time for Christians to retreat, Fry says. "The Muslim world is so large, it cannot be ignored. The cry of Islam is becoming the massive Macedonian call for our day."
NIGERIA: Praise from the ashes
"We thank God for all that has happened." Coming from a Nigerian Christian, it’s a pretty remarkable statement, considering what happened. More than 150 churches smoldered in ruins; hundreds of Christian-owned homes and businesses lay in ashes. Some 22 Christians, including two pastors, were dead at the hands of rioters. Rampaging Muslim extremists last spring struck a devastating blow to the Christian community in towns throughout northern Nigeria.
Months later, Christians could see the hand of God in all that followed. "Many Muslims were converted after the riots," says Bulus Y. Galadima, a Nigerian theological student at Wheaton College Graduate School. "The reaction of Christians to the riots was a testimony to Muslims. They did not fight back or seek revenge." Even some who participated in attacks on Christians were won to Christ by the behavior of their prey.
One highly-publicized post-riot conversion was that of a Muslim university professor, who told Christians he saw now they had something Islam could not offer. He joined Christians meeting in the ashes of their church for worship in the open air.
The disaster produced another unexpected blessingâ€”a new unity in the church in Nigeria. "Christianity in Nigeria is complex," says Galadima. "There are various ethnic groups and languages, and a north-south dicotomy. This has a bearing even on the church. But this incident has brought the churches together."
In the months since the riots, Nigeria’s rulers have reestablished a tenuous peace. Public comments on the March incident are prohibited by law. How long the present truce will last, no one knows. Muslim extremists have struck out at Christians before with devastating effect. Many Christians think the aggressive Muslim population will strike again.
"Islam is losing popularity," says Galadima. "Even in the north, only a handful of cities could be said to be Muslim." At the same time, Christianity is growing, especially in the north. "Muslims have attempted to popularize Islam, but it is not catching on," he says. He believes Christians have become the scapegoat for failed Muslim strategies.
Muslims claim some 60 percent of Nigeria’s nearly 100 million people. Christians, however, say only 30 percent of Nigerians are Muslim. Patrick Johnstone’s Operation World lists the Muslim population at 36 percent. Johnstone says 49 percent of Nigerians claim to be Christians, although only 31 percent are actually affiliated with churches. Evangelicals comprise 14 percent of the total population.
The number of Christians is multiplying rapidly, causing concern not only to a dwindling Muslim population, but to the leaders who must supply pastors and teachers for the converts flooding the churches. Pastoral training is woefully lacking, says Galadima, whose church sent him to the United States for graduate training unavailable in Nigeria.
When he returns, Galadima will teach theology at Jos ECWA Theological Seminary. With others now in overseas graduate schools he plans to help establish a graduate program at the seminary in three or four years. Despite the considerable size of the Christian population in Nigeria, there are no full-time graduate programs for pastors or teachers.
About a dozen universities in Nigeria offer a variety of doctorate degrees, and the educational level of Christian lay people is rising. Most pastors, however, do not have even a bachelor’s degree, says Galadima. Only a few have post-graduate degrees. "The church in Nigeria needs graduate schools so our pastors will be able to face the challenge of the day," says Galadima.
For Christian leaders, the challenge of the day is handling a growing, maturing church. They are concerned about Muslim violence against the church, but their attention is focused on the task at hand. After all, they have seen how God is able to take events meant for evil and shape them to his own good purpose. "We thank God for all that has happened," Galadima says thoughtfully. "Our concern is for the growth of the church."
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