by David Sanford
Too many missionaries are failing in Western and Central Europe.
Jonathan and Susan (not their real names) might as well have announced they were getting divorced or abandoning the Christian faith. The shocked response they received from everyone who knew them, including members of their mission board, was the same.
After several years of Bible college and seminary training, two years of support raising, and some $275,000 spent during the course of almost four years of work in Austria, Central Europe, Jonathan and Susan were coming home for good.
Jonathan and Susan arrived home two very hurt, broken, devastated ex-missionaries. They still love the Lord with all their hearts, but something went wrong, very wrong.
After spending and expending themselves, they had nothing to show after nearly a full term on the mission field. They’d never had even one in-depth conversation with someone about the Lord. It wasn’t that they weren’t trying. Rather, they gave themselves to the work wholeheartedly. Talented, energetic, gifted in evangelism, fluent in German, Jonathan and Susan had high expectations. But in the end, Austria, "the modern graveyard of missionaries," claimed two more victims.
The names change, the circumstances vary, but the story is the same in case after case. Significant numbers of American missionaries sent to Central and Western Europe return home, defeated, within one or two terms, never to return. Given such casualties, isn’t it time to consider the need for some major changes in our missions efforts in Central and Western Europe? Let’s go back to Austria and examine why couples like Jonathan and Susan have thrown in the towel after serving in this Central European nation, and then explore how their experience could have been much different.
"WE DON’T KNOW WHAT ELSE TO DO"
Veteran missionary Floyd Schneider recalls his experience after arriving in Austria 13 years ago: “We soon discovered that traditional missionary methods didn’t work in our situation. Here we were working with a church for our first two years, learning the language, the culture, and what we were supposed to be doing. But nothing the church tried worked.
“For one evangelistic outreach the church spent months passing out fliers to the neighboring towns for an upcoming tent meeting. We had seven days of excellent evangelistic preaching. Not one unsaved person even showed up. The evaluation afterward: Should we keep doing this? Yes.
Schneider wasn’t the first to observe what happens when missionaries discover their efforts are for naught. First, the missionaries begin spending the majority of their time with one another and with believing nationals. The missionaries fail to develop any genuine, long-term friendships with the people they’re supposed to be reaching. In fact, they’re held in contempt by many of the nationals for even thinking of trying to convert them.
Second, the missionaries end up justifying their existence to themselves and their mission boards by doing something other than evangelism. The missionaries are doing Christian work, all right: “Usually lots of missionary meetings,” one missionary admits.
Third, the missionaries (and their mission boards) are forced to claim that various Central and Western European fields are “hard and cold and closed to the gospel” in order to justify their lack of evangelistic results. However, at an average cost of more than $60,000 per year per missionary family, can we afford to accept such claims at face value?
Fourth, the missionaries spend much of their time working out problems between themselves, problems that wouldn’t be so big if they spent more time with the unsaved.
Finally, new missionaries are plugged into the existing system, perpetuating old ways of doing things. If they have any discernment at all, they soon see the lack of results and begin to question what is going on (or not going on). Veteran missionaries feel threatened; tensions rise; new missionaries are told to “get to work” or go home. Woe to the new missionary who dares to try new methods. Surely there’s a better way.
OBSTACLES WE MUST FACE
Scott Walt, second-term missionary serving in Baden, south of Vienna, identifies and describes three of the biggest barriers to traditional missions work in Central and Western Europe: First, the average European is inoculated against Christianity. At least eight out of 10 consider themselves Christians already because they belong to a state church. This has more to do with nationality, however, than personal faith. For all practical purposes, many Europeans have rejected the state church and thus rejected Christianity, which they see as one and the same.
“Every Austrian takes 12 years of religious classes in school,” Walt notes. “They learn a lot, but it’s traditional religion, not the Bible. It sometimes takes me a year to convince an Austrian friend of mine that Christianity as described in the Scriptures and Christianity as described by the state church are two very different things. Many of the Austrians I know are very bitter and angry at the church. Until you can get past that, it’s no use trying to win them to Christianity.”
Second, in countries with strong state churches, Europeans consider any member of the “free church” someone who belongs to a cult. In Austria, just under 90 percent belong to the Catholic Church. Five percent belong to the Lutheran Church, also recognized as an official state church. A small minority belong to what is called the “free church,” which means anything from Baptist to Methodist to Seventh-day Adventist to Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness. They’re all lumped into one category, otherwise known as “cult.”
“Anyone known to belong to a ‘cult’ is considered suspect, even dangerous and un-Austrian,” notes Walt, “especially to the middle and older generations. Thus, it’s almost impossible to invite the average Austrian to any kind of evangelistic event at your church. In fact, it’s almost impossible to even get to know an Austrian once he or she discovers you’re a free church member.”
One American missionary, for example, served as the pastor of a free church. Burdened to reach out to those who lived in his community, this missionary was an active street evangelist. He would walk up and engage Austrians in a conversation, frequently finding they were spiritually hungry – hungry enough to make an appointment to meet with this young free church pastor to talk further about spiritual things. This missionary made dozens of such appointments with unsaved Austrians. But not one of the Austrians ever kept their appointments. It didn’t matter if the appointment was scheduled at the church, at the missionary’s home, or at a neutral location. The problem? The minute a spiritually hungry Austrian mentioned to his family or friends that he had met a friendly free church pastor, they would immediately react: “You’re getting sucked into a cult!”
Was this young missionary lazy or incompetent? Hardly. He was incredibly diligent, fervent, committed, and unsuccessful.
The third barrier to traditional missions work in Europe is one of authority. If a missionary says anything that disagrees with the state church, what’s the response? Who are you, an American cult member, to contradict our state church? Why should I give you the time of day, let alone listen to what you have to say?
“In the past, at least in certain parts of the world, to say you were a missionary carried weight. The situation is exactly the opposite in Austria,” says Walt. “The very first and very worst mistake anyone can make when they get here is to tell anyone, anyone, that they are a missionary. Do that, and you’re finished.”
TIME FOR NEW APPROACHES
Schneider and Walt are part of a growing network of “non-missionaries” in Austria, Germany, and France modeling a successful approach to doing evangelism, discipleship, and church planting in Europe. Their approach: First, as mentioned above, get rid of the “missionary” label so people can get to know you, let alone give you a hearing. Schneider is a freelance writer; Walt a part-time biology teacher; another a gardening expert; another a pharmacist. It doesn’t really matter what your profession, or how much time you spend pursuing that profession. You must have a reason, any reason (other than “missionary”) for being in the country.
Second, if you have any formal theological training, keep it under wraps. Otherwise, you’re immediately labeled “missionary” even if you’ve never said the word yourself. And you’ll be grilled: “Why are you here? We’re not a bunch of heathens. Why should we believe you? And where are you getting your money, anyway?”
Third, avoid other missionaries like the plague. Not because you don’t like them, but because your first and foremost calling is to develop redemptive friendships with nationals. From the first day in language school on, make friends. Lots of friends. Go out of your way to meet people and befriend them. But whatever you do, don’t automatically start witnessing to them. If you do, you’ll be one friendless missionary, guaranteed.
Fourth, never talk about what church you attend. And avoid making any negative remarks about the state church, even if your national friends express a lot of anger and bitterness toward it. To do so would be the same as attacking their nationality and culture. They can gripe, you can’t.
GET PEOPLE TO STUDY THE BIBLE WITH YOU
Fifth, introduce the concept that reading the Bible has had a positive impact on your life. Drop a sentence into a conversation, even with someone you met only 15 minutes earlier, mentioning how your marriage (or whatever) is better because of something you’ve read in the Bible. Leave it at that, unless they ask questions.
Sixth, never answer biblical or theological questions. If someone you’ve gotten to know asks you about what the Bible says about marriage (or immortality or whatever), say, “You know, the Bible has quite a bit to say about that.” If possible, cite references in the Gospel of John. Then say, “You know, you should read the Bible” (the Gospel of John in particular). Don’t say what Scripture says; create curiosity so they’ll want to read the Bible with you.
Reason: If you want somebody to tell you what to believe, go join a cult or go back to the traditional church. If you want to know what God has to say, he’s written a book. Read it.
Seventh, if the person you’ve gotten to know scoffs at the idea of reading the Bible with you, follow the example of Jesus and insult them. Austrians, for example, are quick to protest that they can’t understand the Bible. With a smile, say: “What? I thought you were university educated. Can’t you read? This is a book. Anybody can understand it. Can’t you? Want to read the Gospel of John with me?”
Says Schneider: “The Lord himself used ¡¥insult evangelism’ to make people curious enough to want more, even though what he was saying contradicted so much of what they’d grown up to believe.
“As well, the Lord was careful not to tell people, even his disciples, everything they needed to know all at once. Jesus wasn’t being dishonest. He simply knew they couldn’t handle the whole truth all at once. You see that in John 2, in John 3, in John 4, right down the line.
“Similarly, we provoke people’s curiosity and challenge their intellectual pride if they refuse to consider what God’s Word says. But, on the other hand, when they do start asking questions, we don’t cram the gospel message down their throats.”
LET THE BIBLE DO THE TALKING
Eighth, let the Bible itself challenge your friends’ inaccurate belief systems. Six nights a week, hundreds of Austrians meet in homes to read the Gospel of John and discuss what each paragraph means. Schneiderand Walt,and other “nonmissionaries,” including a growing number of Austrian Christians, ask questions. Period. They refuse to explain what the Bible means, or correct those who make inaccurate interpretations of the text (because of prior religious indoctrination). They let the word of God interpret itself.
During one such study, an Austrian named Gerhard told Walt that when John 1 spoke of Jesus’ baptism, it was referring to the time when Jesus’ sin was washed away, making him holy and fit for the ministry he then embarked on. Walt replied, “You know, Gerhard, that’s an interesting concept. Let’s keep that in mind when we get to John 8 where Jesus himself talks about his degree of sinfulness.” End of discussion.
During another study, a Catholic seminary student named Bogumil told Walt that when John 2:12 spoke of Jesus’ brothers, it was referring to his followers. Bogumil had studied in Catholic seminaries in both Warsaw (where he’s from) and Vienna. Walt knew it was pointless to pit himself against accepted Catholic doctrine. So Walt replied, “Is that how you understand what this verse is saying? That’s interesting. You know, in chapter 7 John talks about Jesus’ brothers again. Let’s talk about this when we get to that passage.” Next verse.
Months later, this same seminary student, after a study of John 16, prayed: “Lord, last year we started this study looking for you. And we found you.” Where? By going to church? By obeying church dogma? No, by searching the Scriptures. Bogumil still meets weekly with Walt and others for inductive Bible study. They’re in Acts now.
Ninth, don’t try to lead your friends to the Lord. Let the Lord draw them to himself. Schneider claims, “Almost everyone who has started reading the Bible with me and continued on into (John) chapter 7 has become a believer.”
Not that Schneider himself leads them in a prayer of commitment. “Only twice in the past 13 years have I actually been with someone when they accepted the Lord. Usually, I find out about their decision sometime after the fact, at a later study.”
Tenth, if someone trusts Christ, don’t incorporate them into a local church right away. Instead, keep studying the Scriptures. When you finish the Gospel of John, keep going in Acts. Use the weekly studies as a built-in mechanism for discipleship and church planting. Wait for new believers to ask, “Does anybody else believe in Christ? And what’s this we’re reading about the ‘church’? What’s that? Can we start one?”
DO THESE NEW APPROACHES WORK?
The answer is a resounding Yes. Schneider, Walt, and a small network of “non-missionaries” have helped lead hundreds of Austrians to the Lord and planted dozens of churches during the past 15 years. Their approach is explained at length in Schneider’s book, Evangelism for the Faint-hearted (Earl C. Publishing, 587 S. Hidden Valley Road, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio 44223). Does all this mean traditional missions work should be discarded in Austria and other parts of Central and Western Europe? That depends. Traditional missions work is bearing some fruit. But at what cost?
Schneider, Walt, and others go so far as to advocate that American “nonmissionaries” should be sent out by and held accountable to their local church, not a mission board. Part of their reasoning is theological, part practical. U.S.-based missions boards typically require a missionary family to raise an average of $5,500 of support per month to serve in Central or Western Europe. Scott and Leslie Walt, and their four children, do fine on less than half that amount.
Walt says, “A lot of our friends are missionaries who went out from our home church to serve the Lord in other parts of Europe, Africa, or South America. There’s no way we could justify spending another $3,000 a month just to live and do the work here. That would be absolutely unnecessary.”
Walt and Schneider acknowledge they’ve been criticized bysomemissionaries for their approach. I wonder if perhaps it’s time to listen and ask some tough questions, instead.
(By the author’s own admission, his article isn’t meant to be the last word on valid approaches for missions work in Europe. Let us know your response to the approaches suggested above.–Eds.)
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