It is the purpose of this post to reflect on the current European situation of mission and evangelism. As such is a broad topic, I will be starting with interviews I held (they will be kept anonymously) in relation to the second part of “Church in a Multi-Religious Society” at Evangelische Theologische Faculteit (under Prof. Dr. Stefan Paas). Using the interviews as a starting point I will also reflect on the literature read as well as on the lectures given by Prof. Dr. Paas. As this post is more reflective in nature, references to literature will be held to a minimum.
It is of interest to observe that “all” (i.e., three) of the interviewees believed in “life” after death or at least at some kind of continuation (in contrast to extinction; one even stated a belief in reincarnation). All of the participants were a bit hesitant to state how such looks like exactly, but they were confident that there is something after death. All three also believed that there is some kind of higher power—but that such would be more abstract (in contrast to a personal god/God). This observation (broadened by research) shows that there a really not many true atheist out there. Most people in Europe believe in some kind of higher being/power/god. It is rather pragmatic agnosticism which seems to be the ruling spiritual state.
The issue most people in Western and Northern Europe have is that of institutional belonging. People still have some kind of belief (of whatever kind) but they oftentimes do not belong to a religious institution—spirituality yes, but religion no. In my view this is a fairly common phenomenon stemming from the modern rejection of authority and authority structures which got even more stressed in a postmodern mentality. No one (I am aware of the hyperbole here) wants to be told what to do and what to believe. As one interviewee stated: “Each one us has to find purpose in life by himself/herself. If it is given by someone external it is not one’s own purpose.”
People are interested in spiritual matters. This is a great opportunity and challenge to Christians in Europe. If we do not have anything spiritual to offer, who has? This interest in spirituality also points to another factor which I have been reflecting upon—the factor of rationality. Most interviewees have not thought through their respective worldview, values, and ethics, though most of them had some form or another in place. If such was incoherent did not really matter as long as it worked. This too has implications on how to participate in missions in Europe. The “old paradigm” given by modernity—rational arguments, empirical data—though having its place in the community of followers of Jesus might not be the primary connecting points with our culture; a culture which is driven by different (postmodern) ideals of life need to be engaged with such ideals. Rationality has its place, but the focus needs to be steered towards a holistic view of what it means to be human. To be human is more than being a rational being. We are relational, spiritual, social etc. As church we need to think and live along those lines as well. This has major implication for church services, small groups, and evangelism in general. In my view, the relational nature of evangelism needs to be stressed more. On the other hand, there also is a need for clear evangelistic outreach even among those we do not know. One caveat we encounter in a post-Christian era is that no prior knowledge of Christianity can be presupposed. Even the “simple” word “God” might evoke many responses/images which might only slightly (if at all!) correspond to a Judeo-Christian understanding of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the Father of Messiah Jesus. Thus street evangelism for example might not have conversion as its primary goal, but rather an informative, maybe a first-encounter tactic. As we cannot presuppose any prior knowledge of the Scriptures and/or the biblical God we need to take a lot more time to explain and witness to a biblical idea of who God is and what He has done, is doing, and will be doing in the world and in our lives.
Let us take a look at another aspect brought up by the interviewees. All wanted their (actual of fictional) children to learn something from them. Here the tendencies toward a Christian value system became obvious to me and one of them even stated that he wanted his children to be educated in the Christian tradition (the interviewee himself comes from a religious context of ancestor worship/veneration). In regards to religious celebrations most of the experiences were positive whereas some also expressed concern with misuse of power and trust. As far as I understood authenticity was one of the primary concerns of those three interviewees. Falsehood and lying were two of the frustrating aspects mentioned in the interviews. Greed and egocentric behavior was seen as two of the major contributions to this world’s condition which in most aspects (for sure in the moral realm). This calls a follower of Jesus to radical authenticity and weakness. In my view Robert E. Webber is on the right track seeing that a return to a dynamic worldview of the ancient church fathers will help us in our postmodern context to see how theology, mission, day-to-day life-faith needs to be worked out in a culture which is not Christian. As people are looking for freedom, wholeness, and connection the message of Jesus as the Christus Victor is now more relevant than ever. It is he who sets us free (John 8:36), restores us to our original design (Rom 8:29); it is he who makes us whole, gives life to the fullest (John 10:10). In an age where and a culture in which authenticity and truthfulness are two major concerns expressed by the people, Christians do have a major opportunity to fully engage and question their own hearts.
The above reflections/observations give us the opportunity to go back to the roots and truly commit ourselves to biblical teaching and an intimate knowledge and love of the Triune God.
There is another aspect I have been reflecting upon (but which needs a lot more reflection yet) and that is the three theological sources which inspire missionary thought: (1) the participation in the Missio Dei; (2) mission as liberating service; and (3) mission as the proclamation of Jesus Christ as universal Savior. As we have been talking about these during the lectures it was stressed that all of these theological sources need to be taken into consideration when one engages in outreach. None of the individual sources should be stressed in exclusion of the other. To that regard I was wondering whether the Missio Dei could be the umbrella under which the other two subsume. In my understanding liberating service (and seen e.g. in the Gospel accounts in regards to Jesus) as well as the proclamation of a universal King/Savior/Lord is very much part of the Missio Dei. Surely, the danger of using the Missio Dei as an all-encompassing term runs the risk of saying nothing at all. Nevertheless, I think we need to have a better grasp (intellectually, emotionally, and volitionally) of what God has been, is, and will be doing with His creation. And in similar terms, what kind of participation the people of God has in God’s own program.
In my experience there is a huge lack of the “overall picture”. Sometimes we are so busy in our activities as church that we run the danger of losing our focus. We think pragmatically about the next step to take, the next program to conduct, the next meeting items to discuss that we might forget about mission in general. But once we do think about mission we think about the foreign field, the going, the other. A better focus would be to think, pray, and worship to find out what God is already doing in our world and where He wants Christ’s local body to partake in. We are participants in God’s mission and not makers of mission. God has a mission and His people are one of the main instruments He uses to further His kingdom. In my view this takes a huge burden from each individual Christian and the church as a whole.
We need to be reminded that we are not called to proselytize, but to make disciples (Matt 28:18-20). We further need to be reminded that such mandate is grounded in Christ himself: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me … therefore” (ESV; emphasis added). We need to be reminded that we are witnesses (Acts 1:8) of God’s mighty acts—especially the life, death and resurrection of Messiah Jesus; the Lord of all. In 1 Cor 2:6-16 (among other passages) we learn that it is the Holy Spirit who brings people to knowledge (a biblical, relational knowledge) of God. We are ambassadors of God’s reconciling work (2 Cor 16-21). We are to proclaim, explain, witness, but not to convince; that is just not in our job description.
As stated above, these are just some reflective thoughts on mission in Europe. What kind of consequences this has for the daily conduct of the church and her program in this world cannot be explicitly stated here; and such would also be misleading. As if there is an easy answer as to how to live as a church in a (sometimes) hostile environment. Times have changed—and it is time for us to change as well. There needs to be a new, maybe more postmodern orientation of the church to actually shape our culture and being shaped by it. It is not a “we” and “they” (or worse “we” vs. “they”). It is an us as God’s creation, created to worship Him and be satisfied in Him. Let us help those who do not know Him yet to see His love and care in holiness and righteousness.
See also the interesting article “The people who challenged my atheism most were drug addicts and prostitutes” (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/24/atheism-richard-dawkins-challenge-beliefs-homeless).
Cf. Paul G. Hiebert, The Gospel in Human Contexts: Anthropological Explorations for Contemporary Missions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009).
Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999).
See Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 44, in regards to liberationist theology.
See especially Michael David Sills, Reaching and Teaching: A Call to Great Commission Obedience (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2010), who argues strongly for theological education, leadership training, and long-term discipleship as major parts of mission in general.
This does not exclude convincing arguments from a Christian perspective and worldview. What is meant here is that such will ultimately not be the cause for someone to return to God.