by Donald Dean Smeeton
With this religious heritage, and two foreign occupations in this century, the following generalizations are quite understandable.
Defending his flexible approach to evangelism, Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers: "To the Jews I became a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law" (I Cor. 8:20 NASB). His point is broader than a simple division of mankind into Jews and Gentiles. He was saying that the culture of the hearer dictated the form of the gospel presentation. This article presents a case study of the Belgian mentality as it presents obstacles to evangelism. These obstacles, although not sinful in themselves, constitute a barrier to effective cross-cultural communication. Although this study considers the situation in Belgium, Paul’s principle should be applied worldwide. The psychological description of this people will have many similarities to other parts of Europe that are dominated by the Roman Catholic Church.
Ten million Belgians are crowded into an area the size of Vermont, with a linguistic-cultural division that cuts the kingdom into equal halves. Both the rapidly multiplying Flemish-speaking (racially Germanic) northern half and the French-speaking (racially Latin) southern half are predominantly Roman Catholic.
But there are differences even in religion. The French-speaking Catholics allow a variety of theological expressions and are lax in attendance at Mass. The Flemish strictly adhere to Catholic doctrines and seldom question the church. Clergy hold considerable influence in local social and political affairs.
Belgians do not look to history for a proud record of a glorious past. Unlike other areas of Catholic Europe (Spain, Portugal, Austria, France, Italy), the Belgians cannot look at any point when, as a rising nation-state, they dominated European life. On the contrary, since Roman times Belgium has been the property of Burgundians, Bourbars, Bonaparts or the Habsburgs. This history is reflected in the Belgian national anthem, "After years and years of slavery . . . "
The sixteenth century is especially important in understanding the present mentality because of the particular brutality of that age. The faith of Luther and Calvin was welcomed in Belgium, then called part of the Spanish Netherlands. More than six hundred congregations dotted the land. Some cities, acting as a unit, declared for the reformation. But religious tolerance belonged to later centuries. Soon Philip II’s delegue, the Duke of Alba, was trampling the fledgling church. Economic opposition, torture, flames, inquisition and death took their toll. By the dawn of the twentieth, only seven Protestant congregations survived. With this religious heritage, and two foreign occupations in this century, the following generalizations are quite understandable.
The first observation of the Belgian mentality is a vague, but very pervasive mistrust. This mistrust can be illustrated in the political life by the fragmentation of parties that hinders a permanent, stable leadership. It can be illustrated in the economic life by extensive use of the Post Office for financial services because of the mistrust of private banks. In the social area, this mistrust can be illustrated by the readiness of housewives to accept rumor concerning food shortages. In spite of official pronouncements, panic buying periodically clears grocery shelves of items rumored in short supply.
This mistrust is seen in the reticence to speak to strangers on the street or in a tram. The faces of pedestrians turn aside to avoid direct eye contact. Conversations in waiting rooms are whispered to prevent being overheard.
Any new idea or person is a threat to the established order. Order and form are highly prized. Customs and cultural celebrations are religiously observed. Houses are marked by uniform exteriors and orderly interiors. The forms of etiquette, such as the often repeated hand shake, are scrupulously observed. Belgians are extremely conscious of class differences. Important events, whether religious or secular, are marked by lavish celebrations.
In matters of religion, the Roman Catholic Church provides the form. Form provides security. The content (doctrinal orthodoxy, strict morality, observance of the sacraments, etc.) is not as crucial as the preservation of the form. The psychological need for form and a mistrust of the new allow a love-hate relationship between individuals and the church. On one occasion a friend said, "I’m a Catholic and I will be till I die. All the church wants from me is my money!"
This attitude of mistrust can be discouraging for the evangelist. People will usually avoid any consideration of the gospel because it is new to them and as such is a threat to the established form . Some will, observing the polite forms, promise a response with no intention of fulfilment simply to satisfy the evangelist. If approached on the street, the Belgians are apt to refuse firmly a gospel tract or politely accept it, neatly tucking it into a pocket for disposal in the trash at home. Assuming the Hegelian dialectic that confrontation results in change, Belgians would rather avoid confrontation with the gospel. Thus the gospel’s call is often met with direct refusal or polite acceptance without permanent commitment.
HOME IS SUPREME
A second factor in the Belgian mentality is a corollary of the first: the home is held as a supreme value. In this case "home" means both the physical building and also family relationships. The value is illustrated by the Belgian joke, "Where does a wife enjoy going most?" The answer: "Home."
From the turn of the century to the close of the second world war, economic growth was slow. But the last thirty years have seen a rapid rise in the standard of living. With this change in life style, the goal of every family is to have a home equipped with the latest electric conveniences. Bank advertising panders to this longing. A furniture store claims, "Good furnishings measure the quality of life." Uncommitted money is quickly absorbed in items for the house. As a crossroads, Belgium plays host to the travel-hungry British, Dutch, and Germans. Belgians stay close to home. The sales slogan for a large chain store reads, "Les Vacances du bricoleur commencent au XYZ store". (The vacation of the home handyman begins at XYZ store.)
Addresses and phone numbers are sparingly given. Doors are hinged to swing inward, not outward. Locks latch automatically. Callers must be identified before being admitted. Walls, not fences, separate yards. Some engaged young people have never visited their fiance’s home. If an American man’s home is his castle, the Belgian’s home is his fortress. Unannounced callers are not welcome. No one just "drops in". Invitations to dinner usually mean a meal served in a local restaurant. Intimate family friends are admitted to the living room, perhaps the dining room, seldom the kitchen, never the more personal rooms.
Relationships within the family are also stressed. Family ties are close and parents exercise close supervision. Elementary schools provide report cards each week. Young adolescents are never without parental supervision. Most university students return to mom and dad every weekend. (Preliminary interest in the gospel created during the weekdays can be destroyed by parental order during the weekend.) The Encyclopedia Americana observes correctly, "Although modern informality is making inroads among the student generation, the tradition of the tight family circle and formal relationships with others is maintained. The home is still the focus of life."
This fortress mentality concerning the home can present a formidable obstacle to evangelization. A knock on the door is a potential violation of privacy. A stranger at the door is a double affront. The doorstep must be cleared and the stranger expelled as soon as possible.
GUIDELINES FOR WITNESS
Perhaps other major psychological obstacles Could be listed, but these two will suggest a number of guidelines for the Christian worker in Catholic Europe. "The block of granite which was obstacle in the path of the weak," said Thomas Carlyle, "becomes a stepping-stone in the path of the strong." Can these psychological obstacles to evangelization become stepping- stones?
The evangelist does well to avoid confrontation. If people are offended, let it be because of the cross (1 Cor. 1:23) and not because of the evangelist. Cultural insensitivity violates Paul’s evangelistic principle. The Christian worker should avoid those words which carry a "load" of emotion. Let Christians be called believers, not Protestants. Let the evangelist be pro-Christ, not anti-Mary and anti-pope. An invitation to a Protestant church service implies that the unbeliever should come into "enemy" territory. An invitation to a meeting held in a public hall provides more psychological safety.
Two evangelistic events illustrate this truth. Pastor Jacques Dernelle of Namur and the young people of this area have had remarkable success with presenting the gospel through music, choreography and pantomime. In a land where anything free arouses suspicion, this group has filled halls with those paying an entrance fee to hear the gospel! Showings of the Cross and the Switchblade film arranged by Teen Challenge and the Committee for Evangelistic Outreach attracted more than 2,400 combined attendance in the Palais de Congres. No one needs feel threatened by watching a film in a public hall.
Additionally, the Christian worker must encourage believers to maintain ties to family, friends and the community. When evangelicals are the small minority that faces discrimination, it is natural to understand the biblical mandate for "separation" to mean "isolation." A Christian participation in school and community affairs can demonstrate Christian credibility on neutral ground. A study prepared by Conservative Baptist Missionary Walther Olsen suggested that 54 percent of the evangelical church members in France came to Christ through social relationships. The effectiveness of this web of friends can be compared to 12 percent won by conventional evangelistic methods. Churches need to sponsor activities for the families, such as informal meetings and outings, so that non-converted relatives and friends can feel comfortable. The family day at the close of children’s camp can be utilized as an opportunity to reach the entire family of the camper.
Considering the social structures, priority should be given to youth evangelism. The emphasis is not new. Young people are mentioned as a necessary target in almost all the European National Strategy Reports at the International Congress on World Evangelization (1974). During adolescence, when family pressure is least effective, the gospel can be entertained with the least opposition.
Finally, the Belgian mentality necessitates greater exploitation of the opportunities of the mass media. The claims of Christ can be considered inside the security of the family fortress if presented by literature. Such literature must have the highest quality in content, layout, color and printing, because it will have to compete with attractive advertisements of expensive shops.
Operation Mobilization, International Correspondence Institute, and Croisade de Maison en Maison (Every Home Crusade) have used literature with modest success, but success nevertheless. Editeurs de Litterature Biblique, in addition to attractive tracts and quality books, has recently launched a sixteen page full-color evangelistic magazine Espor. Designed for free distribution through the churches, this material demands the unbeliever’s attention through excellent color photographs and interesting articles.
Radio ministries of Christ Vous Appelle, Radio Reveil, and Radio Evangile continue effective ministry. Like literature, radio waves penetrate the locked doors. Usually these broadcasters do not notify the local pastor when a listener writes for counsel. Many times such a letter is sent to a radio speaker because the inquirer feels safe that no personal contact will be made. To inform a local pastor would break a confidence. An exciting new opportunity has recently been attempted in television programming through Radio-Television Luxembourg. Christ Vous Appelle has arranged a series of trial telecasts with the help of American evangelist Willard Cantelon. These ministries and other aspects of mass communication should be used to the greatest possible extent.
The evangelist and missionary are always in danger of allowing an obstacle to become an excuse. Psychological obstacles, rather than blocking evangelism, might guide the Christian worker to his most effective service. Such cultural examination must never be separated from spiritual dynamics. Even using the best suggestions of the article, one must never forget that it is "not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord.
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