God turns up in Europe

June 16, 2003

If you’re old enough to remember those three disturbing words on the TIME cover in 1966, “IS GOD DEAD?”, this week’s European edition of the magazine brings the welcome news that maybe He’s not so dead after all.

Granted, He may have been shut out of the new EU Constitution, and Christianity may well be becoming a minority faith in Europe. But the nine-page cover story confirms what some of us have been saying for years: while Europe has become the prodigal continent, God is now “turning up in some surprising places”.

“These days in Europe, He’s not always in the same old places,” noted the weekly. “So it’s worth asking: Where has God – and Christian faith – gone?”

First the bad news. Church membership has dropped drastically over the past 20 years in many countries, according to findings reported in the European Values Study of Tilburg University in Holland (see www.EuropeanValues.nl). Overall Catholic membership has dropped a third since 1978. Even the Christian establishment now saw and accepted itself “as a minority force – an underdog, where in centuries past it literally ruled Europe.”

Once upon a time, Europe was Christendom, and Christendom was Europe. Western civilisation was Christian civilisation. But last week neither God nor Christianity could get a specific mention in the draft of the new EU Constitution, despite lobbying by the Pope (and, we could add, submissions from the European Evangelical Alliance). This omission reflects neither the facts of history – the Christian worldview has been unquestionably Europe’s primacy shaping force – nor present belief patterns.

“It may sound strange to say, but in some ways Europe’s faith has survived the church,” continued TIME. “While the continent may be more secular than ever, God hasn’t gone away for everyone… In all but a handful of countries, more than two-thirds of people believe in God.”

What then are some of these surprising places where God is turning up? TIME suggests the following:

God has gone private
The separation of church and state, proposed by Anabaptists in the 16th century and enshrined in the American Constitution in the 18th, is being seriously considered in those last bastions of establishmentarianism such as England and Norway. Citizens, like states, are rethinking their relationships with clergy and fashioning their own relationships with God – from France to Russia. A French theologian is quoted as predicting that “at the end of this path will open a new age of Christianity.” Truth is, suggests TIME, it may already have begun. Galina, a Moscow translator, confesses that when she goes to her Orthodox church, she avoids making eye contact with the clergy – whom most Russians mistrust: “the important thing for me is to have God in my heart.”

God is among the immigrants
Across the Continent, TIME reports, immigrant congregations are thriving. Under the heading “Saving the Prodigal Parent”, missionaries from the developing world are reported to be ‘doing their best to shore up the foundations of European Christianity’. From nations like South Korea, Brazil and Uganda where Christianity is thriving, immigrants to Europe are often shocked by the lack of passion among Europe’s Christians. At the same time, these immigrant missionaries see their work as a gesture of thanks to Europeans for bringing the gospel to their countries in past times. “Before they came, we were worshipping trees and demons,” said an Ugandan pastor now working in Birmingham, England. More missionaries are on the way from these and other countries, and TIME suggests that European immigration officials may have to create a new visa category, distinct from that of asylum seekers: soul seekers!

God has gone user-friendly
Traditional services, with the ‘hard pews and the drone of the sermons’, are described in the report with adjectives like ‘bureaucratic’, ‘obsolete’ and ‘irrelevant’. Interactive celebrations and studies, where questions are welcomed, are burgeoning across the Nordic region, and via the Alpha course have spread to 38 countries in Europe. Alpha’s founder, Nicky Gumbel explains: “Our society has changed. We don’t need to change the message but we need to change the way we put it across.” [Reports of YWAM’s Impact World Tour events, with break-dancing, skateboarding, trick-cycling, fire-dancing and power displays could have illustrated this category further.]

God is among the youth
An unexpected rejuvenation of Christianity was under way among Europe’s youth, claimed the article. “An increase in religion among youth is very clear,” stated a French sociologist. Significant increases among youthful believers were cited in Denmark, Italy and even France. The village of Taiz√© in Burgundy continued to attract 100,000 primarily young people each year on an ecumenical pilgrimage. A Swedish bishop was shocked to find himself accompanied by 500 youth on a five-day pilgrimage last month. In Berlin last month, youth comprised 40% of the 200,000 gathering for an Ecumenical Church Day – which stretched to five – prompting theologian Hans K√ºng to assert: “This is not the end of Christianity at all. When 7000 attended (a workshop) just to hear me answer the question, ‘Why be a Christian today?’ you cannot be a pessimist. I have hope.”

[Even in The Netherlands, notorious for its soft-drugs, abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage policies, 32,000 young people flocked to Arnhem’s Gelredome sports complex on Saturday, for the annual youth-day of the Evangelical Broadcasting Company, backing up traffic through the city and creating motorway jams.]

God has gone alternative
People are defining their own belief systems and mixing in alternative spirituality. While many may be rediscovering spirituality, they are not necessarily returning to the church or sticking to its tenets, continues the report. In a post-modern age of mix-and-match, this renewed interest in spirituality can get fuzzy around the edges, borrowing from Buddhism, Hinduism and other sources in a form of ‘a la carte’ Christianity. The concern of many church leaders was expressed in the report by Godfried Cardinal Danneels, the Archbishop of Brussels and Mechelen, [who recently dropped in on YWAM’s Kerygma Teams DTS in Mechelen]: “The church needs to get to know modern culture. But it’s a mistake to think we should try to attract more people by diluting our message.”

Bottom line of the report? “The faithful can take heart from the knowledge that, while their God may not be in the EU constitution, He’s still all over Europe.”

But we knew that, didn’t we?

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain
P.S. In an unintended irony, TIME’s recognition that God was still alive in Europe was followed by an article suggesting Saddam may still be alive in Iraq. Thankfully, there was no article about Elvis.

Till next week,

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