by Ant Greenham
Missionaries with unusual wisdom face off against Europeans’ deeply held impressions.
Europe has had a longer sustained exposure to Christianity than any other continent. That fact can constitute a key barrier to presenting the gospel there: To many, Christianity is simply "a phenomenon, which, after impeding progress for centuries, is now in the throes of its demise."1 Without truly being known, Christianity is vaguely conceived of as something outmoded and outgrown. Evangelicals should thus take nothing for granted as they seek to share their faith in secular Europe. This is the problem.
The solution? The essence of biblical Christianity — the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ — cannot be compromised. These core truths demand a response which has the greatest of consequences regardless of continent. Yet the gospel message can be presented according to a mode! that is culture—specific, designed to facilitate understanding, response, and growth. Such a model – its justifications, corollaries, effects, and emphases—is the central concern of this article.
THE GOSPEL IN THE MARKETPLACE OF IDEAS
The difficulty of presenting the gospel "in a pluralist society is that it simply disappears into the undifferentiated ocean of information. It represents one opinion among millions of others."2 This perception of Christianity as simply one option, or competitor, among many, is diametrically opposed to the New Testament’s teaching that Christ is the only way to salvation.
A re-examination of the nature of the gospel can help as we prepare a witnessing model to penetrate this sort of setting. In a nutshell, the gospel "is news of what has happened."3 For Paul, this news was "of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day" (1 Cor. 15:3b-4a,NIV). If these statements are true, they are the most important truths in human history. The proclamation of the gospel thus demands a response: "man needs to enter into a personal relationship with a personal God through faith in Christ’s substitutionary death."4 The response subsumes commitment, as this relationship "is to be expressed in devotion, public religious practice, (and) the affirmation of specific beliefs, as well as (in) certain patterns of behavior."5 In short, the gospel and one’s response to it will influence every aspect of the Christian’s life. For Europeans, used to relegating religious matters to the irrelevant backwaters of history and tradition, these concepts are revolutionary.
Effective "communication of the gospel will require: counteracting low source credibility, reformulating the message so as to allow an understanding of its intended meaning, and overcoming the apathy, fear and self-sufficiency which pervade the secular environment."6 Our task: Construct a model for the presentation of the gospel in secular Europe that targets these problems and concerns.
PRESENTING THE GOSPEL WITH EUROPE IN MIND
In witnessing, many evangelicals concentrate on the point of conversion to the exclusion of serious heart-searching beforehand and discipleship afterwards. Three models, in addressing this problem, center on the point of conversion, but also seek to include the broader ramifications. I have combined these models in order to present a modus operandum for proclaiming the gospel in secular Europe.
David Hesselgrave outlines the conversion process like this:7
- discovery: "There is a person called Christ whom the true God is said to have sent into the world to be the Savior and Lord of mankind."
- deliberation: "There is a possibility that I should forsake the old ways and follow Christ."
- determination: "I will repent and believe in Christ."
- dissonance: "Shall I resist the forces which draw me back to the old ways, and continue to follow Christ in spite of present difficulties?"
- discipline: "I will identify with the people of Christ in His church and live in submission to His lordship and church discipline."8
Although the process is not rigid, pressing for a decision in the absence of true discovery or deliberation may prevent a true conversion, and the absence of discipline afterwards does not edify the church.
Viggo Sogaard emphasizes the cognitive and affective dimensions in coming to conversion and in further spiritual progress.9 Recognizing that the conversion process is the work of the Holy Spirit, his model suggests that a certain amount of understanding and the absence of a negative attitude are prerequisites for conversion.
An Individual would move from no understanding/negative attitude to sufficient understanding/positive attitude, vis-a-vis the gospel. This internal process and the work of the Spirit would then culminate in a conversion decision.
Paul Beasley-Murray and Alan Wilkinson propose a spiral model of church growth.10 Believers in an existing congregation are discipled, progressing to greater levels of maturity; eventually, they are able to evangelize and nurture newcomers in a self-perpetuating process. Beasley-Murray and Wilkinson envisage a sequence in which one could "trace the progression of someone who … goes through … various stages to become eventually someone who is influencing others to become involved."11
They see these "stages" as including: church activity attendance, special service attendance, irregular church attendance, regular church attendance, definite interest in spiritual things, counseling,’conversion, baptism and church membership, need for special nurture, growing up in Christ, maturation, and becoming a potential leader in service and evangelism. By the later stages of the process, the believer would be introducing others into its beginning, thus continuing the cycle, building up the church, and accomplishing God’s work.
This last model amplifies that which Hesselgrave calls "discipline" and Sogaard "further spiritual progress." With this in mind, i combined the three models.
An individual would thus proceed from a position of little understanding and poor attitude through discovery and deliberation to conversion (assuming the Holy Spirit’s moving). If follow-up is effective, and a pre- or post-conversion dissonance does not derail the new disciple’s commitment, he or she would grow in the Lord’s discipline to the point of becoming the means used to bring others into and through the process. Ideally, the cycle would not only repeat but expand as more and more believers reached the point of being "ready and able."
Experiences in the European context bear out the stages in the conversion process outlined above. Daniela Kurz, of Italy and Germany, writes of her former lack of interest in the Bible and ignorance of Christianity’s true meaning.12 She was surrounded by people who "[thought] they [were] Christians, but…[were] not born again."13 Discovery came through a friend, Oliver, whose faith awakened her curiosity.
After she began reading the Bible he gave her, her understanding increased and attitude began to shift (deliberation). "In two weeks I had read all four gospels. Every night, Oliver would come to my home and patiently discuss with me what I had read." Determination (conversion) followed when she responded to Oliver’s encouragement to make a decision.
Dissonance was not a problem, although her mother was afraid she had joined a cult (thinking religion was "for stupid people or those who can’t handle life"). Daniela began attending an evangelical church where disciple-ship was a priority, learning "through personal Bible studies, counseling and the teaching each week from God’s Word." She also began serving in the areas of church finance and youth, reaching the point where she had a concern for church planting and was proclaiming the gospel to others. She concludes:
Germans…are not open about personal things until they feel you are really willing to be their friend. Then they will listen. At the bank where I worked when I became a Christian, it took two years. But I thank the Lord that by the end of my time there, I had an opportunity to explain the gospel to them.14
It is clear that by that time she had gone full circle in terms of the combined model, benefiting from the discipline of a local church and having become a means through which others were discovering the gospel.
THE TRUTH VIA THE MODEL: DISPELLING EUROPEAN MISCONCEPTIONS
One of the biggest problems in presenting the gospel in secular Europe is overcoming the perception that it was tried, failed, and has been replaced by a more up-to-date philosophy. This, of course, is largely what "secularization" is all about:
Secularization has shaped a worldview, which people have not consciously chosen but which permeates their thinking in every area of life. Secularism, the philosophy, is built on empiricism and positivism, maintaining that the only real world is the world experienced through the five senses.15
Beliefs and values are matters of individual choice; Christianity and other systems are entirely relative. Belief in outmoded myths is the privilege of individual choice, but seeking to convert others to those beliefs is an unacceptable, narrow-minded intrusion.
This misconception and its effects are based on an unproved assumption that the universe is a "closed system," consisting only of physical realities. No Divine Being outside and independent of the system has ever acted on it or spoken to us in it. Thus, beliefs that such a Being does exist are merely ideas generated by individuals. The individuals are themselves part of the closed system, and the idea is only one among many that have arisen within that same system. The belief in God is not necessarily better or worse than other views, but it does not and cannot contain significant truth, since the system (universe) is closed. Proclaiming this (or any) belief as truth and calling people to respond, believe, and live by it represents a threat to the assumption of a "closed system."
The gospel is thus an affront to an integral part of the secular world view, for it calls individuals to acknowledge that which would profoundly transform the way in which reality is seen. A proclamation to the effect that Christ rose from the dead, normally passed off as an empty phenomenon of the past within a closed system, "can [thus] be accepted as a fact only if the whole plausibility structure of contemporary Western culture is called into question."16
An individual facing the claims of the gospel makes the discovery that accepting these claims will require a total reorientation of world view. Realizing this implication of Christian conversion necessitates a good deal of deliberation prior to a determination to follow Christ. Apologetics, especially for the resurrection, are thus a key component in witnessing. When challenging the assumption and its resulting misconception, clarity and logic are vital. The gospel presentation must be reasonable, or it risks being dismissed out of hand. It is "imperative that the speaker claim no more than can be supported by the evidence."17 One should focus on well-defended absolutes which derive their strength from the demonstrable reliability of the New Testament documents in general and the resurrection in particular.
Another European misconception is the perception that evangelical Christians have little or no concern for corporate responsibilities. Unfortunately, some have focused on salvation for the individual without showing the impact of salvation on the believer’s lifestyle and on society. This mistaken idea relegates Christianity at large to a tolerated position of de facto dormancy: "A private religion of personal salvation that did not challenge the public ideology was perfectly safe under Roman law, as it is safe under ours."18 The challenge is thus to show that the gospel affects every area of life. The Bible says a good deal about corporate responsibilities, and secular Europeans need to hear this. "To many it comes as a complete surprise that the Bible is more than a handbook for personal salvation and happiness."19 Surprise or no, communicating such "details," in proper relation to the gospel, plays an important role in demonstrating Christianity’s relevance.
To the secular mind, concern for corporate responsibilities is drastically tempered by the reality of death. Death comes to all, equalizes all, ends all. In the face of this fact, the idea of an immortal soul might become the paramount excuse for selfishness. One might be tempted to forsake the present world as irrelevant. Alternately, meaning might be seen "only in the march of humanity toward a shared future (making) the human person marginal and finally dispensable."20 An individual who contributed to this shared future, if it ever materialized, would be an anonymous contributor to a faceless new world. A statue might be erected, though benefiting the individual not at all, and eventually even that would crumble. Progress would be the substitute god, its own and humanity’s reason for being.
The gospel provides a better answer. Christ’s resurrection was good not for him alone; it foreshadows the future of all who put their trust in him. Because of the resurrection, we have the assurance of sharing personally in his real kingdom. "Though this world seems consigned to death, the resurrected Messiah is still its only lawful heir." This is a truer basis on which to live. Turning from our own ways, trusting him and following in his way is the key:
Following that way, we can commit ourselves without reserve to all the work our shared humanity requires of us, knowing that nothing we do in itself is good enough to form part of that (holy) city’s building, knowing that everything – from our most secret prayers to our most public political acts — is part of that sin-stained human nature that must go down into the valley of death and judgment, and yet knowing that as we offer it up to the Father in the name of Christ and in the power of the Spirit, it is safe with him, and—purged with fire—it will find its place in the holy city at the end (cf. 1 Cor. 3:10-15).22
The truth that secular Europeans need to discover is not limited to the here-and-now existence of ourselves, or even of future generations; the gospel transcends personal death and future cataclysm.
A final misconception that might hinder the discovery of biblical Christianity revolves around the question of personal relationship. Europeans tend to see themselves as Christians simply because they are members of an institutional church. Belief, or its absence, and frequency of church attendance have nothing to do with "being a Christian." That Christian beliefs might affect behavior or require commitment could be a novel idea. The communicator should thus seek to "show that prayer and Bible study could reasonably be expected of one who claims to be a Christian."23 This would possibly lead to direct interaction between the individual and the message. The potential convert must understand that Christianity is above all a personal commitment to a unique person.
Once this misconception has been dealt with, and the essence of the gospel discovered, the individual should be encouraged to deliberate on "the radical nature of personal commitment and the cost of discipleship."24 All depends on being personally related to the one who lived and died and rose again. "It is only within the context of an intensely personal relationship to a personal God that the individual can hope to receive an affirmation of his own worth, unconditional love and confidence."25
The personal involvement of the communicator is vital. An individual "has a right to see the results of a personal commitment to Christ. As such, the communicator himself and the Christian community become part of the message."26 Ron Anderson, a missionary in Montilla, Spain, found it necessary to abandon a "Gypsy salesman" approach of presenting the gospel in order to build relationships with Spaniards "outside the context of the gospel" to show "them that we could be trusted."27
In Oviedo, Spain, discovery also came through relationship.
Missionary Gary Levi joined a local hunting club. When one club activity was rained out, Gary had the opportunity to spend several hours alone with Juan Carlos, one of the club’s officers. Curious about Gary’s faith, Juan Carlos is beginning to ask important questions that may someday lead to his salvation.28
"You could be the only Bible that some people will ever read" is more tried and true than trite. The importance of a genuine Christian community to serve as a basis for presenting the gospel cannot be overstated.
COMMUNITY, THE BASIS FOR THE GOSPEL WITNESS
There is a "widespread hunger for community" in Europe, a hunger which might offer an explanation for the popularity of new religious movements.29 That hunger represents a great potential (and thereby poses a great challenge) for the church.
"Many people learn the truth of the Gospel for the first time by experiencing it in the way in which they are welcomed and accepted in a congregation.30 Sophisticated Europeans will not take long to see through an approach that counts heads but cares little for the concerns and aspirations represented by those heads. Any presentation of the gospel in secular Europe should emerge from a welcoming community with which local people can comfortably associate.
In 1980, the "Thailand Report on Large Cities" noted that the entry of new converts into urban churches was accompanied by "a noticeable increase in community or shared lifestyle."31 In applying this observation to Europe, the report recommends the restoration of "a family koinonia atmosphere in the urban church" and sets the goal of "a 20 percent increase in home groups (either for evangelism, prayer, or fellowship) in three years."32 A home provides a non-threatening atmosphere in which biblical Christianity can be discovered. Homes are an excellent setting in which to employ the combined model I discussed earlier. Incorrect stereotypes associated with Christianity would be absent or more easily overcome, and once individuals have been converted and are being discipled, they can and should be encouraged to use their homes to reach others.
The Christian community does not have to be restricted to homes, but it is important that a group of those who have entered into a relationship with Christ act out a viable alternative lifestyle characterized by caring. Such a group should seek to demonstrate commitment to Christ in helpful corporate activities. This will not guarantee that conversions will occur-the Holy Spirit is the giver of spiritual life-but a welcoming community does appear to play an important role in implementing the combined gospel presentation model in a secular European context.
Most secular Europeans have a negative perception of Christianity, but little knowledge of its true content. This ignorance is compounded by the common view that they know a good deal, certainly all they need to know. From this difficult starting point, one desiring to present the gospel must realize that it will be seen as radical. The communicator should focus on leading individuals through the stages of discovery, deliberation, determination, threatened dissonance, and discipline, as the Holy Spirit moves, in such a way that misconceptions about relativity and the place of social action are dispelled. The goal is converts who will enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ and become part of caring communities which continue to reach others in the same way.
1. Edward Rommen, "Communicating the Gospel to Nominal Christians in West Germany." D. Miss. Thesis. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 1982, p. 101.
2. Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 242.
4. Rommen, op. cit.
6. Rommen, op. cit, p. 106.
7. David J. Hesselgrave, Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1978), pp. 446-452.
8. Ibid., p. 447.
9. Viggo Sogaard, "Dimensions of Approach to Contextual Communication." The Word Among Us: Contextualizing Theology for Mission Today. Ed. Dean S. Gilliland (Dallas, Tex.: Word, 1989), p. 171-177.
10. Paul Beasley-Murray and Alan Wilkinson, Turning the Tide: An Assessment of Baptist Church Growth in England (London: Bible Society, 1981).
11. Ibid., p. 68.
12. Daniela Kurz, "God Changed My Life." Increase, July/August, 1991, p. 1.
13. Ibid., p. 2.
15. Eddie Gibbs, "Contextual Considerations in Responding to Nominality," The Word Among Us: Contextualizing Theology for Mission Today. Ed., Dean S. Gilliland (Dallas, Tex.: Word, 1989), p. 251.
16. Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1986), p. 62.
17. Rommen, op. cit., p. 145.
18. Newbigin, Foolishness, pp. 132, 133.
19. Robert H. Matzken, Prophetic Ministry in a Post Christian Culture: A Program of Biblial Education by Extension in the Netherlands." D. Miss. Thesis. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 1982, p. 70.
20. Newbigin, Foolishness, p. 135.
21. Bob Goudzwaard, Idols of OUr Time. Trans. Mark Vander Vennen (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1984), p. 97.
22. Newbigin, Foolishness, p. 136.
23. Rommen, op. cit., p. 126.
24. Ibid, p. 181.
26. Ibid, p. 182.
27. Ron Anderson, "U-Turn in Southern Spain." Europe’s Millions, July/September, 1990, pp. 6, 7.
28. "God Uses An Interest in Hunting and Music." BCU Increase, July-August, 1991, p. 3.
29. Commission on World Mission and Evangelism of the WCC. "Missionary Congregations in a Secularized Europe." International Review of Mission July/October, 1989, p. 460.
30. Ibid., p. 459.
31. "Thailand Report on Large Cities: Report on the Consultation oon World Evangelization Mini-Consultation on Reaching Large Cities." Lausanne Occasional Paper (Wheaton, Ill.: Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, 1980), p. 16.
32. Ibid., pp. 17, 18.
Copyright © 1992 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.