Europe is the most secular continent in the world. This post-Christian mission field poses one of the greatest missionary challenges to the Christian church. Jim Sayers, until this year Communications Director of Grace Baptist Mission, reflects on this challenge.
Across the continent of Europe, most societies have become increasingly secular in the way they operate. Religious belief is seen as a private matter, and making religious claims in public life is seen as irrelevant. When visiting Stockholm in 2017, I was aware that Martin Luther’s original letter containing his ninety-five theses was kept somewhere in the city, but in the great anniversary year, I could find no trace of it. I enquired of the staff in the Cathedral in Uppsala whether it was on display anywhere, and the blank-faced lady (a church employee!) told me she had no idea. ‘In Sweden, we are very secular,’ she said.
Is this true across the continent? In many places, secularism is a reaction against something else, often the power of Roman Catholicism. In some places, secularism is seen as good news by evangelical Christians, as ‘dissenters’ have often seen a clear separation between church and state as a virtue. Are we to see advancing secularism as a chill wind blowing against us, or a gospel opportunity?
Before I go further, it is important to say something else. Europe is a continent, not a country. We should therefore be careful not to generalise about this patchwork of nations, each with different histories, languages and cultures, some of them overlapping the frontiers of nation-states. Some have known a strong Protestant tradition. Others strangled the Reformation at birth. Still other countries such as Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia are strongly Orthodox. Communism controlled half of Europe until only thirty years ago. It is therefore essential that in the work of cross-cultural mission, each nation is considered in its own right. Missionaries coming to serve in a European nation must commit themselves to partnering with national Christians, and above all, to learning the local language fluently.
In some nations of Europe, religion and the state are still closely intertwined. Serbia fought a bitter civil war with its neighbours in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, motivated by religious divides. Support for the Serbian Orthodox Church increased massively, from 35% in 1990 to 85% in 2002. Whether this devotion was anything more than nominal is hard to know, but barely 1% of Serbs would identify as atheist. In Poland, national identity has been entwined with Roman Catholicism. The Catholic church became a focus not just of religious devotion but of national identity and anti-Communism. The challenge for Polish evangelicals is to present the gospel in a way that speaks to Polish identity and culture.
France is more obviously secular. The French revolution overthrew not only the monarchy but also the power of the Roman Catholic church. Public life in France is shaped by the concept of Laïcité (literally ‘secularity’), the idea that public dialogue should be a ‘neutral’ space as far as religion is concerned. The religious are free to practise their faith, but only in private. Does this mean it is impossible to have a gospel conversation with anyone? No, but the influence of rationalism in the land of Descartes is very strong. James Hammond has worked as a missionary among students in Bordeaux for several years, and says,
‘Lots of students avoid “believing” in something too quickly for fear of being naive. They want to consider the contradictions and counter-arguments before making up their mind. Unfortunately, lots of people never end up making up their mind; they don’t land anywhere, and they are always doubting, arguing, debating, thinking.’
At the same time, secularism has not destroyed the place of the church in French society. James says,
‘There are families who identify themselves as Catholic because it’s part of their cultural heritage and identity. Secularism in France is therefore divided between a love for the “modern” while remaining deeply in love with their history, and this was seen when Notre Dame went up in flames. Even this Catholic church is seen as part of France’s great destiny that reaches for the stars and yet is deeply rooted in her prestigious past.’
Where evangelicals were marginalised in France forty years ago, they are now growing and planting many new churches. Where Christians are willing to engage the secular mindset, understand the reservations people have about their faith, and live out their life as an authentic Christian church community, God is blessing his church.
Germany was known as the home of biblical higher criticism at the beginning of the twentieth century. Germany’s experience of both Nazism and Communism has had its effect. Former East Germany was the most atheistic place in Europe, but this is changing. Jörg Muller, who pastors a church in Runzhausen in Germany, sees secularism as a friend not a foe, as an opportunity for new churches to flourish. In some parts of former East Germany, he says,
‘there have been good efforts to plant new churches. Most of these have been in the most vibrant cities which have good employment and a strong student community. There have also been efforts to revitalise struggling churches.’
However, he adds,
‘My impression is that evangelicals are in danger of being more and more shaped by neo-liberalism. The infallibility of Scripture is under dispute. Although little is being heard about higher criticism, it is still underpinning theological investigation.’
The threat to gospel churches may not lie outside in an unbelieving society, but within churches, as they neuter their message to suit a secular age.
In Italy, does Catholicism still dominate or is secularism taking hold? Less than 10% of Italians are committed Catholics, though two-thirds would say they are Catholic. 27% of the population identify as non-believers, nearly double that of ten years ago. Italy is increasingly secular, but that does not mean a conflict with Catholicism. Leonardo di Chirico, pastor and church-planter in Rome, says,
‘Secularism in Italy is not anti-Catholic; it becomes another layer on top of cultural Catholicism. Present-day Roman Catholicism has few doctrinal and moral expectations from its people. They are free to believe and live how they want and still consider themselves as Catholics.’
So how should the gospel be presented in such a culture? A key approach is to address the uncertainty in young people’s lives. They are uncertain about their future, their jobs. Big life decisions are often left open-ended. The Roman church no longer seems to have an answer. Secular hopes disappoint them because they are not delivering what they promise. The biblical hope, together with biblical shalom and community, are important apologetic tools to reach out to them.
To reach the increasingly secular nations of Europe, it is crucial to read the culture and address the particular issues in that nation. Secularism has loosened the grip of institutionalised religion. In its place, gospel churches must speak the gospel prophetically to their generation from Scripture with confidence in God’s Word, and be authentic communities that embody the gospel in the way we live together.