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Johnson Journal

Board Up the Cathedrals

The European church is changing in a post-Christian era

By Megan Darreth


There’s a hot new trend in Sweden, and the must-have item of the season is a pair of punk rock jeans called Cheap Monday. What sets these jeans apart? The logo: a grinning skull with an upside-down cross on its forehead.

Logo designer Bjorn Atldax says he is not a Satanist, but that the jeans are "an active statement against Christianity," which he calls a "force of evil" in the world. If the way Cheap Mondays fly off the shelf is any indication, thousands of young Europeans agree with Atldax. At the very least, they don’t care what the skull means.

Such sentiment is not unique in Europe. On a recent visit to the United States, Italian politician Rocco Buttglione reported, "In Europe, it is fashionable to be anti-Christian." Buttglione led an effort to include language in the European Constitution that would acknowledge Europe’s Christian heritage. His efforts failed.

For over 1500 years, Europe was the world center of Christianity. It is home to the Roman Catholic church, saw the Reformation and rise of Protestantism, and was the original sending base at the start of the modern missions movement. TEAM itself was founded by Fredrik Franson, a Swede. Christianity in Europe inspired countless works of art and several bloody wars. Cities and villages throughout the continent are peppered with churches and cathedrals – enduring monuments that sometimes required centuries to complete. Disparate in language and culture, Europe was connected by religion and the shared bonds of the Christian church.

But today, the cathedrals stand empty and silent, except for a handful of tourists and the echoing click of a camera shutter. Across the continent, old churches are being boarded up or, in the case of the Dutch Reformed cathedrals, being converted into luxury apartments. Some are reopening as mosques, since Islam has now outstripped Judaism as the second-largest religion in Europe.

T.R. Reid, in The United States of Europe, says that Western Europe has "turned its back on religion." A recent European Newsweek article similarly argued that Christianity today is as strange to Europeans as atheism and vegetarianism were a generation ago.

Statistics paint a grim picture. In Britain, France, Germany, Holland and Belgium, less than 10% of people attend church once a month. In Scandinavia, the figure is less than 3%. According to the European Values Studies, only 21% of Europeans hold religion to be "very important;" about 40% believe in heaven, and 20% believe in hell. Reid writes, "Depending on how the question is asked, up to 95 percent of Americans say they believe in God; in most of Europe, the figure is closer to 50 percent."

Mike Cochrane doesn’t put much weight on statistics. Mike is TEAM’s regional director for Europe. He and his wife lived in Austria for over eleven years, before returning to the States about a decade ago. Mike acknowledges that the body of believers in Europe is small – he says he never once accidentally met another believer in Austria – but he also believes we may be looking in the wrong places.

"Sometimes we don’t see what God is doing," Mike says. "We don’t have his frequency, so we’re scanning for something we think is the church and we don’t see it."

Mike tells of his surprise two years ago when he learned about a vibrant church-planting movement in Norway. For the previous two years, an evangelical revival across denominational boundaries had resulted in the formation of a new church every two weeks. These were not mega-churches, but spiritually vibrant groups of forty or fifty people that were meeting in homes and other non-traditional places. Some of the groups reached two to three hundred people and began sending members away to start new churches. But what most amazed Mike was that nobody knew this was happening.

"Here I am," he says, "a regional director for ten different countries, and I never heard a peep what was going on there. It was flying under the radar. This movement was not announcing itself. It was not a program associated with a mega-church, so nobody saw it. We’re looking for churches that look like our churches."


Why have European churches changed, and why is the traditional church in decline?

The reasons are varied. In The Cube and The Cathedral, George Weigel argues that the source of Europe’s antipathy to organized religion goes all the way back to the 14th century, when scholars like William of Ockham developed "nominalism," the idea that there are no universal truths (for example, "good") beyond the word we use to describe a situation. If there are no universal truths, then religion becomes an oppressive myth from which man must free himself.

"European man has convinced himself that in order to be modern and free, he must be radically secular," Weigel writes.

Some believe the state church monopolies have damaged religion, and that the lack of choice or a "free market" have left people uninterested in the product. Others point to the development of democracy in Europe, beginning with the French Revolution when revolutionaries sent dozens of priests to the guillotine and transformed Notre Dame Cathedral into the Temple of Reason. As a result, the Catholic church set itself firmly against "progress, liberalism, and modern civilization." Of the French, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, in Democracy in America, "Among us, I had seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom almost always move in contrary directions."

Mike Cochrane has seen the effects. In Austria, anti-Christian terminology even is taught in the universities.

"There’s a Social Darwinism attached to it," he says. "They believe there’s a social evolution in Europe and they’ve progressed beyond it. To talk about Christ, they feel they’d have to step into the past. They look at you with a wink and a bit of humor because you’re a fixture of the past and inferior in your understandings."

Perhaps one of the primary reasons Europeans are adopting a post-Christian attitude is because traditional churches have not accommodated the post-modern society that developed after WWII. Unable to offer comfort or inspiration for new problems, churches have become irrelevant.

Paul Davis, a TEAM missionary in France, says, "The French people are very indifferent to spiritual things. I have never been persecuted for my faith in France, I have never been threatened for my faith in France, but I’ve seldom been listened to for my faith. The French just don’t care. To them, it’s an irrelevant topic. Unless you get to know them, and spend time to get into their lives, and then when they finally open up and share the emptiness in their hearts, and they see that you’ve got something different, finally the doors start opening."

In this there is hope, and evangelical Christians throughout Europe are taking advantage of the opportunities provided by post-modernism; in particular, by its emphasis on building relationships rather than institutions.

"The basic essence of the message we’re trying to communicate is ‘No, it’s not about church and religion, it’s about a relationship’," says Dan Kuehl, a TEAM missionary in France.

Dan and Becky Rogerson, missionaries in Italy, spend time building relationships. "Most of our ministry here is through friendship," Dan says. "It’s through meeting people, trying to build a relationship, and then drawing them into a Bible study or some other conduit into the Gospel. But it takes a long time. Italians usually won’t take any serious interest in what you have to say until they know you fairly well."

When Dan and Becky first moved into their city, they received a cold welcome from their neighbors. To make themselves known, Dan and Becky held an open house and began hosting a yearly Christmas carol party. This has opened up many families in their building and sparked several good friendships.

"One neighbor, who lives directly above us, would not speak to us for almost a year and a half," Becky says. "He would not even speak. But he came to the Christmas carolers party, and the next month they invited us for dinner. They asked Dan to pray before the dinner, which is a big thing."

In Spain, Dave and Rose Prince are reaching their neighbors in a unique way. All apartment buildings in Spain hire a groundskeeper to clean and care for the building, and in the Princes’ building, this sociable man knows everyone who lives there. When Dave and Rose started a home fellowship in their apartment, the groundskeeper visited and eventually became a believer. Now, he shares his faith and encourages others in the apartment building, telling everyone about the fellowship.

Because of its emphasis on relationships and fellowship, small house churches are well suited to European culture. Missionaries in many countries have abandoned traditional church planting in favor of this more apostolic model.

TEAM missionaries in Spain envision a series of house churches or cell groups that spread organically among friends and family. When a cell group becomes too large for the home, it is divided. No church building will be purchased or rented, though the groups might occasionally all meet together in a sort of "celebration service" to praise God and celebrate what He is doing in each cell group.

Ken Muckle, working in Madrid, explains, "We really believe in relational ministry from start to finish. Our evangelism is focused on relationships and our ministry will be focused on relationships, because we think the Bible says so much about the ‘one another’ verses – we’re to care for one another – and we think the best place to do that is in a small group."

"It seems like the Spanish people are more interested in the relationship," adds Ned Steffens. "They’re more interested in seeing that being a Christian involves your whole life, not just an hour on Sunday or an hour on Wednesday."

To that end, missionaries have also changed their evangelism techniques. Paul and Sarie Anderson have influenced some of their neighbors simply by living out their faith in front of them. One Spanish lady said her faith in Christ began when she and Sarie went on a walk together: Sarie’s mother had been rediagnosed with cancer and Sarie was not sure her mother would ever get to meet her two month old baby, but Sarie exuded a peace this woman had never seen before and she wanted to know more about it.

"In a sense, you’d call it incarnational living," Paul says. "The gospel we are presenting to them is an incarnational gospel. If I would go out in the park across the street from our house and start sharing the Four Spiritual Laws with the first person I come to, they wouldn’t give me the time of day. But if I go out there with my kids and play with their kids and talk to them about daily things of life, they’ll get to know me, and as they observe how I parent, how I answer different questions about life, they’ll notice that there’s something different about us. We are open about our faith to them, but we don’t preach to them. We seek to have a friendship with them; we don’t view them as a project."

Something as simple as dinner is proving to be instrumental in growing Europe’s body of believers. The Alpha Course – a ten week course developed in Britain that involves dinner and a twenty minute discussion about the true identity of Christ – has been very fruitful in Western Europe and Scandinavia.

Mike Cochrane believes it provides something Western civilization has lost: community. European society today is characterized by loneliness.

"Austrians are very privacy-oriented, and they don’t have people in their homes," he says. "It’s a very perfectionist society, so your house has to be perfect before people come over. You’d think, in this society, inviting people to dinner would be the last thing to do, but it’s exactly what people need and want. They like it because they’re human. People who have lost the church are lonely. They have no nourishment for spiritual needs."

TEAM missionaries in the Czech Republic, Tom and Elaine Sampley, have begun a coffee house ministry. A group of adults and youth meet at the coffee house on Sunday nights, and Elaine makes soup. They eat together, sing songs, pray, and develop community. Half the group are believers and the other half are not.

"What they have is a church," says Mike. "If you asked anyone, they would never say it was a church, because it doesn’t fit what they know of church: a building, a pastor, money. But none of that is in the Bible. In the Bible, it talks about coming together to break bread and fellowship and follow the Word of God. This is a very post-modern, post-Christian example of movement among the body of Christ in Europe."


The response of traditional state churches to evangelicals has been mixed. Often, evangelical Christians are ignored. In Austria, where there is currently a youth movement of spiritual interest, the Archbishop of Vienna asked if there could be some partnership with evangelicals in working with the youth. But in countries where the Catholic church has been strong, evangelicals are usually regarded with suspicion.

Tom Bassett, a TEAM missionary in France, explains, "There’s a lot of fear, a lot of suspicion concerning the Protestant church. They know the Protestant church exists, but they don’t know how to identify it. The government is having a hard time doing it; the person on the street even more. They know, too, that there are cults out there, and they don’t know how to tell if you’re a cult or a church."

A French magazine recently printed an article that equated the evangelical church to a cult led by President Bush intent on world domination.

"The term ‘evangelical’ is not understood in France," says Paul Davis. "They know that President Bush claims to be an evangelical, so anything evangelical must be related to American politics."

In response, believers and missionaries are trying to counter this confusion by making the word "evangelical" better understood. Those in Spain have bought billboards and TV broadcasts to clarify that evangelicalism is about spiritual realities and not history or nationalism. The Irish Evangelical Association uses the term to denote "a third way" – a way of life and truth that is neither the Catholic past nor the post-Christian present. In France, TEAM missionaries meet regularly with their town mayor and the local priest in order to make themselves known and maintain good relations.

As the body of believers in Europe moves away from traditional institutions and models, it also must find new ways to help people understand the relevancy of Christ by meeting people’s needs in a post-Christian society.

Often, this proves to be difficult. Andy and Linda Brucato, TEAM missionaries in Italy, have opened an internet café to connect with Italians, but they find it challenging to build bridges when there are no felt needs.

"One obstacle to the Gospel is the Italians’ desire not to change," Andy says. "They like the status quo. They like things the way they are."

"And yet, they’re obviously unsatisfied," Linda adds, "because it’s amazing how many people are turning to Buddhism and all kinds of other Eastern religions and philosophies and yoga. Everybody’s doing yoga and into meditation, and all of this spiritual stuff, but with no basis of truth. That’s not even relevant anymore, whether it’s true or not – it’s really whether it prospers me, it works for me, it makes me happy."

An evangelical church in Braga, Portugal, has been able to share God’s truth and love with the Portuguese because of its many social ministries. Missionary Steve Mosely explains, "In the difficulty of planting churches in Portugal, I’ve seen we need a tool that will communicate to the community that we love them and God loves them. We need a circle of people that we have contact with socially so we’re not outsiders in the community, and if we have a ministry to seniors in the community where we’re taking meals to somebody’s aunt or uncle or grandma or grandpa, then we can go and talk to them also. They know who we are; they know we serve their family. So it opens a door to people that is different than if you’re knocking on the door and they’ve never met you."

Amrei Wehmeyer always avoided social ministries, believing they distracted Christians from sharing the Gospel. But in Braga, she discovered she could be an open ear and an open heart to the non-Christian Portuguese who work with the social ministry.

When the church needed help with its foster home program – a ministry that provides homes for children removed from dysfunctional families by the government – it did not have enough Christian workers, so it hired two ladies who were not believers. One came from a dysfunctional family herself, but she was willing to help with the children during Sunday school and the church service.

"She was very open right from the beginning," Amrei says. "She assisted Sunday school, and even asked questions and was thinking a lot. After a short time, I offered to read the Bible with her, and I hadn’t even gone through the four lessons I was going to teach her and she already told me that she had accepted Jesus. She said that she had not known God’s love before she met us."

In Ireland, TEAM missionary Linda Wagner also has found a practical way to meet needs by working as a counselor. She tells the story of a girl she counseled who was having panic attacks that prevented her from taking university exams. The girl was anti-Christian, but she knew Linda was a believer. Over the course of their meetings, the girl softened toward God and eventually read the Gospels. At the end of the school year, she got the highest marks in her class on the exams.

"What I’ve found," says Linda, "is that people are so desperate, they don’t care if you’re a Christian or not, if you can help them. So it’s opened a lot of doors for me, of talking to non-Christians, that I wouldn’t have had otherwise."

In addition to her own counseling practice, Linda trains other counselors and churches how to care for people. She frequently speaks on different topics – such as depression, self-esteem, sexual abuse, or pornography – as an outreach to nonbelievers.

"They can come and see that God is very relevant to our lives everyday," she says, "and that the Scriptures really speak to what is happening in our lives."

Demonstrating the love and relevancy of Christ will be one of the biggest challenges to missionaries as Europe enters a post-Christian era. Culture and politics are no longer dominated by Christianity, and the hearts of many people are shut tighter than the church doors. Ironically, because of Europe’s history with Christianity it is often disregarded as a mission field. So much has happened in Europe – God sent the apostle Paul himself – that many people are inclined to shake the dust off their shoes and move on. But Mike Cochrane thinks this attitude is a mistake.

"I get disgusted myself," he says. "Look at all that’s been done. If there’s a place that doesn’t deserve any more attention, Europe is it. But I think Europe is an expression of God’s grace. It’s an example of His grace and amazing mercy. God may return His favor to Europe as the center of the true church; He may or may not. But I don’t expect Him to ever turn his back on Europe."

So there is hope for Europe in this new era: evidence that God is working among gatherings that are small, but also strong and pure. The great cathedrals of Europe may no longer ring with throngs of the faithful, but the church can still be found, down the street at a local coffee shop.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. – Acts 2:42-43