strengths and weaknesses
Apart from the numbers, what are some of the strengths and some of the weaknesses of the church in Europe?
First, let me say that no matter how liberal the church at large in Europe has become over the last two hundred years, Almighty God still has had His faithful servants in different parts of Europe who clearly proclaim Jesus Christ as the only Lord and Savior. One of those faithful servants was Julius von Jan, who served as pastor of the Protestant state church in my home town of Oberlenningen, near Tübingen in southern Germany. In God’s providence, Jan served as a pastor during the reign of the Nazis in Germany. After the Reichskristallnacht in November 1938, Jan preached his famous Bußtagspredigt sermon on Jeremiah 22:29: “O land, land, land, hear the word of the Lord!” In this sermon, Jan called the German people to repent and not to follow the Nazis but instead to follow the living God and obey His Word. Jan preached this sermon while men of the Schutzstaffel (SS) were sitting in the congregation, and a few days later he was sent to a concentration camp. Jan is one example of the strength of the church in Europe: a preacher who not only faithfully preached God’s Word but who was amazingly bold in the midst of tremendous opposition. One of the real strengths of the church in Europe is that many Christians here clearly follow Jesus Christ as their real God—or as Tim Keller likes to say, their “functional Savior.” Most of these Christians are in rather small congregations, and they know that their love and their commitment to Jesus Christ is not esteemed or valued by the culture. And yet they joyfully follow Jesus Christ because of who He is and because of what He has done for them in His sinless life, in His death on the cross, and in His resurrection.
A second strength in the church in Europe—in those churches where Jesus and the gospel is proclaimed—is a deep sense of community and fellowship. It is a great joy for me as pastor of Gospel Church München in Munich, Germany, to see how deeply people love each other and care about each other and how they joyfully spend much time together, both on Sundays and during the week. By God’s grace, we have many non-Christians who visit our worship services, and I frequently hear from them that they are blown away by the joy and the love that the people at Gospel Church München have for God and for one another. It is not unusual for one of these visitors to tell me that they have never seen a more loving community. Praise be to God that this is not only true in Munich but in many other churches that I have visited all over Europe.
A third strength of the church in Europe is its willingness to care for the least of the least. Germany alone took in more than 1.25 million refugees in 2015. Many of them came from war-torn areas in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. A large number of churches in Germany have helped many of these refugees, and by God’s grace, hundreds or possibly even thousands of refugees have come to faith in Jesus Christ. I know of a group of refugees in downtown Munich, most of whom are former Muslims, who meet every Sunday afternoon to study the Bible, and the group just keeps growing and growing, both numerically and spiritually.
When it comes to the weaknesses of the church in Europe, the first thought that comes to mind is that liberal theology has tremendously hurt the church. If you have pastors who are not preaching Christ crucified and risen and who don’t talk about sin, then it is no wonder that people are not converted and that those churches die. In my own experience in Munich, I have heard from several pastors that in the Bible there is no such thing as truth. This is in direct contradiction to Jesus’ words in John 8:31–32: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
An apparent weakness in the church in Europe is that some churches are man-centered rather than God-centered. Instead of being concerned with the glory of God and His eternal kingdom, the focus has shifted to being concerned with how God can give me a better life now.
A third weakness is the lack of knowledge of good systematic theology. It is rare, especially in the free churches, for any catechism or confession to be used in the church. Sadly but not surprisingly, many Christians in Europe don’t know their doctrine; they don’t know what their church really believes. As a consequence, some Protestants in Europe have gotten to the point that they think the Roman Catholic Church teaches and preaches basically the same things as the Protestant churches. They have forgotten—or they have never really been taught—why the Reformation was necessary in the first place.