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Within the space of forty-eight hours, one could tour more than a dozen of Europe’s most beautiful historic cathedrals, emblems of Christianity’s once ubiquitous presence. But for the people who live in Europe, and I speak as a German national living in Germany, the familiar-looking steeples and the church bells sounding forth into the night are but tragic reminders of an all-too-distant past.
What caused this transformation of western Europe from the erstwhile cradle of the Reformation to one of the most secular places on earth within just two centuries? Many reasons could be listed. Among them would be the Enlightenment, higher criticism of the Bible, German liberalism, and finally, not entirely disconnected, the havoc of two World Wars. These all play their part in explaining the current climate in much of western Europe.
Today, we are faced with the challenging combination of an aggressive “New Atheism,” constant Muslim immigration, negative population growth, and a dwindling Christian presence. In Germany, Italy, and Ireland, evangelical believers comprise at most one percent of the population. In countries such as France, Spain, Austria, and Poland, the percentage is even lower.
“How can the church possibly survive?” people in Europe are asking. “Is there any hope for us?” While it might be tempting to cave in, throw hands up in the air, and abandon the sinking ship, this is simply not an option. God still has His people there.
As with our entire Christian walk, our hope does not come from the situation we are in. More often than not, Christian hope actually rises despite the situation. As believers, we are not called to live comfortable and easy lives. We are called to live by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). It is “through faith and patience” that we “inherit the promises” (Heb. 6:12). We are called to suffer even as Christ Himself suffered (1 Peter 2:21). Thus, we are not called to minister, evangelize, and plant churches only in places that promise quick success because they are “white for harvest” (John 4:35), but also in those areas that seem more like valleys of dry bones (see Ezek. 37:1–14).
Germany is a good illustration of the latter, as it has not seen the almost proverbial “revival of the spiritual” taking places in other parts of the West. It is still, for the most part, simply dead and resistant, truly post-Christian. So, what do we do?
Some argue for a toning down of theological convictions as the way to go forward, thereby simply repeating the sins of their liberal forefathers. Others turn to pragmatism, arguing that times like these demand a “roll-up-your-sleeves” mentality, not a dotting of the doctrinal i and crossing of the theological t. Yet others argue for “thinking outside the box” when it comes to ministry in a post-Christian world, and by “the box” they usually mean the church. Hope in the church as the sole agent for propagating the gospel has been abandoned by many a pastor and missionary here.
What many think we need is a magic bullet of missions and church planting that will cut through the rock hard soil of western Europe.
We agree. We need this magic bullet. And we have it, but, alas, we disagree with the pragmatists and progressives as to where it may be found. It is not to be found in the newest fad but in the nature of the church and the promises given to it.
In Matthew 16, Jesus makes a promise to Simon Peter: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (v. 18). While there is some debate as to what Jesus meant by “on this rock,” what is clear is the import of Christ’s promise to build His church. Jesus is the originator of His church. He is the builder and keeper of His church. And just as He has charged the disciples with making disciples of all nations, including the spiritual wastelands of Europe, by baptizing them and teaching them to observe all that He has commanded them, so He has promised to be with His church, even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:18–20).
The true church of Christ has always been recognized by the marks of true gospel preaching, baptism, the administration of the Lord’s Supper, and discipline, which are also the means of grace God ordinarily uses and promised to bless. This church is kept by Christ in such a way that not even the gates of hell shall prevail against its mission.
Admittedly, Christ’s promise to Peter may seem counterintuitive today, especially in Europe. But then again, we must walk by faith, not by sight. We need to rely on God’s promise, draw from God’s strength, and use the means He has given the church. That is our only hope. Such a promise-driven approach to ministry cannot ultimately fail because the church will ultimately survive. This is the magic bullet of ministry if there ever was one.