Europe is the new “dark continent.” Africa now sends more missionaries to Europe than Europe sends to Africa. The health reports of the European church aren’t terribly encouraging. Churches are closing and are being converted into mosques, museums, bars, and book depositories. In most European countries, less than 5 percent of the population attend any church. In France, there are more practicing Muslims than baptized Catholics. In England, more than 70 percent have no intention of stepping into a church—ever. In Berlin, the city where we live, 95 percent of church plants fail.
Recently, I was asked two questions at a missions conference in the United States. First, what does it mean that Europe is post-Christian? Second, what hope does the church have in such an environment? The second question disturbed me. What hope does the church have? The question reflects an attitude of resignation in regard to what God is doing in Europe. I sometimes see this attitude on home ministry assignment. “Why should we support missionaries to Europe?” we are asked. “It’s expensive. We can get a better bang for our buck elsewhere. Besides, they already had their chance. God isn’t working there anymore.”
The Power of the Gospel
We miss the power of the gospel when we place problems before promises. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus promises Peter, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Christ is building His church. Every other religion in the world proclaims a message of acceptance, inclusion, and hope based on human works and striving. But Christianity is radically different. Eternal acceptance into a relationship with the Creator and the expansion of His kingdom are both based on Jesus’ works. That’s why Martin Luther wrote:
Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing; were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing: Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He; Lord Sabaoth, His name, from age to age the same, And He must win the battle.
Just a few verses later, Peter forgets the promise of the gospel and sees only problems. Jesus declares that the battle will be won through His death. “You can’t die. That doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t fit our plan,” a befuddled Peter thinks. He forgets the promise that victory comes through the death of Christ on the cross, not in spite of it. Christ’s death is not only the foundation of the church, it is also the means to expand it. Christ is building His church in Europe. Salvation comes through suffering and sacrifice. It was true of Jesus and will be true of His church.
Problems as Platforms
We miss the opportunities for gospel proclamation when we fail to see problems as platforms for ministry.
In Acts 16, Paul and Silas are unjustly thrown into a Roman jail. They are flogged, beaten, and humiliated. At midnight, Paul and Silas begin to sing. The skeptical onlookers don’t have categories for what they are witnessing. The Spirit comes and turns the Philippian jail into a spectacle of His power. Doors fly open, chains drop loose, a violent earthquake shakes the ground, and the jailer and his family come to faith. An arena of darkness and persecution becomes a platform for the proclamation of the gospel.
Europe is definitely hostile and post-Christian. But that’s not all. It’s also postscience, postmodern, postindustrial, postcolonial, postpolitical, postmaterialist, postcapitalist, and postsecular. There is a general cynicism toward everything and hope in nothing. As more people migrate to Europe, Europeans are becoming aware that highly educated and wealthy people can be deeply spiritual and happy. That undermines the secular humanist belief that the more educated one is, the less religious one will be. Young people are looking for new answers, new paradigms, and new hope.
There are a number of crises trending in Europe that are tremendous opportunities for the church. Unemployment in Spain and Greece is as high as it was in the United States during the Great Depression. Churches are responding by creating job centers. Human trafficking hits all major cities in Europe. Church members are walking red-light districts, serving those caught in trafficking webs, and opening people’s eyes to the prevalence of the problem. There are now more majority-world students studying in Europe than in the United States, and many more would love to come. Churches are creating international student ministries. More than four million people immigrate to one of the twenty-seven European Union countries per year. Many bring Christ with them. The problematic refugee situation is climaxing. Secular governments are so overwhelmed that they are open to receiving help from Christian organizations. These crises are a wide-open door for Christians to live missionally, to sing in the midst of darkness, and to serve in the face of injustice.
What hope does the church in Europe have? The promise that Christ Himself is building His church and using the gospel displayed in the lives of those who live sacrificially. It is true that nominal Christianity is in decline. That’s no big loss. However, Christ is raising up a generation of missionally minded church planters who see Europe’s problems as the church’s opportunities.