German Evangelical Alliance: A new perspective

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It is a privilege to be here, to see you all, to meet you who have come from so many parts of the whole of Germany!

The paradox of Europe

Europe is a complex and paradoxical continent. You cannot separate the existence of E from the existence of the Christian church. Actually Europe is shaped by Christian faith. Europe is the forge (smith’s place) of the Holy Spirit.

This is not only clear in the many church towers pointing to heaven from Sicilia to North Cape and from Ireland to Ural mountains, but also in Europe’s main values:

·       Love (agape): in every part of Europe’s history you will find groups and churches, that wanted to follow Christ, that were marked by love for others, in particular the needy and the poor, and that have transformed big parts of society.

·       The principle value of diversity, or to put it different: to respect the freedom for all, whatever conviction or even religion one might adhere. This was established only after a long struggle, but it is there.  

The paradox is that no continent in the world saw such widespread and deep atrocity as Europe has experienced in two World Wars. That no continent brought forward such fiery atheism and no other continent produced such anti-Christian and also anti-human ideologies.

Rich and still poor

At the Hope for Europe congress last May I attended a meeting of GATE (Gift from Africa to Europa, African pastors working together to bring back the Gospel to  Europe). They were speaking about the ‘poverty’ of Europe(!) ‘Europeans are very poor, they always have lack of time and we, Africans, have plenty of it!’

This is the day-to-day ‘paradoxality’ in (Western) Europe that we all know. Europe is a very rich continent and still very poor. Look for example at this:

·       All helpful technical instruments like cars, washing machines, computers, mobile should give us plenty of time. Compared to our father or grandfather we must have plenty of time, but the reality is that we have less time and we are much more stressed than our forefathers.

·       There is roughly speaking plenty of money (despite all signals of a financial crisis), still there is a big lack of care, of homes, of education (items that cannot simply bought).

·       Speaking about religion: no epoch saw so many religious (and also Christian) books, papers, articles, conferences, websites… but agnosticism and atheism are shaping our continent in such way that from the south Europe is considered as a spiritually dying continent. And looking from Christian perspective: what one century ago was a missionary continent (sending missionaries all over the world) has become a continent to be ‘missionized’ again.

Europe’s spiritual reality

Speaking about Europe’s spiritual reality, I like to quote the famous US sociologist of religion Philip Jenkins, who published several books on the future of Europe.

’European media deal with religion as a problem, whether you speak about islamization of Europe, the paedophilic priests in the RC church, or the fear for all kinds of religious sects, including evangelical sects. In all cases religion is seen in a criminal perspective. Many articles and interviews have as a basic emotion: fear. Europe is a continent of fear: fear for losing individual freedom, fear for losing personal and social security, fear for losing financial and material possession. The value of Jenkins’ research is that he compares these kinds of developments with developments in the US, Middle East and China. So he argues that fear for islamization of Europe is unrealistic. 50 years ago the US society had to face all kinds of violent migrant groups, but in particular by migrant woman who were able to raise their social status and their influence violence diminished. Of course he sees the problems with a 2nd and 3rd generation of migrants, but as migrant families will have less children in 2nd and 3rd generation, he expects more an adaption to western secularized culture. Migrants give a new opportunity to share the love of Christ with others!

Jenkins is very pessimistic about the future of the traditional church in Europe. According him European Christianity is near to disappearing. We can prepare the burial of the official church. That doesn’t mean that Christian faith will disappear, but its appearance will be more humble, more in movements, more like leaven in the bread, more feminine, more young. 

For me it was a shock to be in Cape Town, SA, and to experience how Europe was observed: as a spiritually dying continent…

Three signs of hope

Nevertheless I see three important signs of hope for the church in Europe.

1. Revival movements in the established churches. It is special that the Anglican Church in UK was the cradle of some major movements that influenced the church in may parts of Europe and in other parts of the World, like the Alpha course (I can testify how several people came to faith through Alpha in my traditional Protestant Church in R’dam, where I served as a pastor for 8 years). But also other movements like ‘New wine’, ‘Charismatic Movement’ and an interdenominational movement like ‘ Together for Europe’. But look also to revival movements in the RC church, like Focolare, Egidius movement, Chemin Neuf. Last year my church participated in receiving guests from different parts of Europe who attended the European Taizé meeting in Rotterdam. It is quite an experience to sit and pray together with 30.000 young people from across Europe. The participants stayed with church members in the region, they only had a simply copied A-4 booklet as their conference handbook. It was all organized low budget, but the participants were very attentive.

There are remarkable expressions of emerging churches including new types of monasticism in their practice.

2. Migrant churches in E. Migrant churches are the fastest growing churches in Europe. The biggest ones in Kiev, London being Nigerian. In nearly all big cities in (Western) Europe the dying established churches can be confronted by vibrant, dynamic, growing migrant churches with a very non-Western liturgy but also a very non Western approach in helping their members to face the social day to day challenges like housing, educating children, employment, financial crisis etc. Recently in the city of Rotterdam is was calculated that the common effort of the migrant churches to help migrants with social problems helped the city council to save over 4 million Euro!

The migrant churches will face more problems when they become more integrated in Western culture, when the confrontation with secularism will be more severe, when birth rates will go down. It is my conviction that migrant churches and traditional churches need each another badly. The migrant church can help the Western church to identify modern Western idols, like security, individualism and individual self development at the cost of community, and the hunger for material welfare and to become more committed to creative evangelism and social action. The Western Church can help migrant churches to understand secularisation better, and help with resources, buildings, structure, organization and knowledge. I encourage local EA-groups to make contact with migrant churches.
(This point is part of the strategic policy plan of EEA)

3. Church planting initiatives. The last 10 years we see a growing movement of church planting. Over 20 pan-European networks already exist. In every big city of Europe you can find church plants, some very small, immature, but others are on the way to pass the limit of 100 members. These are little signs of hope. Church plants occur in mainline churches (although a bit rare). The Reformed church of Hungary has some nice examples in Budapest, but also in small villages across Hungary.

Indeed many church plants are fragile, in particular continuity in growth is a challenge, but still it is remarkable that many come to faith from a real non-Christian background and become involved in small newly established communities.

The challenge Europe wide is to bring together resources, experience and needs. A Europe wide platform can prevent churches and organizations to ‘find out the wheel’ themselves. Here is a task for EEA, but again I encourage local EA groups to find out what is happening in your city in church planting (Gemeindestiftung)

Crisis and revival

If we look at Europe’s history, many epochs were marked by fear. The French historian De Lumeaux clearly indicated it in his book ‘La peur en occident’ (‘The fear in the West’). He refers in particular to the time of the Reformation. In 1486 the Turks stood in from of Vienna, the black death governed may parts of Europe and a big part of the wheat harvest was lost. And the church had become an institute of power, where you could buy your salvation and where many priests loved drinking wine without measure (as Erasmus indicated in his book  ‘The praise of madness’). But in this epoch God prepared young people to withstand abuse and withstand despair. He gave new insight and brought a big movement of renewal in church and society. This is not the only time. You can think about the 4th century when the Vandals and the Goths besieged the city of Rome. Despair in the mighty Roman empire, which was rotten from the inside. But at that time St Augustine wrote his book on the ‘ City of God.’  And his influence in the ages to come even till today cannot be overestimated. I can mention the 18th century, an age of rationalism, and criticism. But this was the time of the Awakenings, wit Edwards, Whitefield, later Wesley. I can mention 19th century with the rise of atheism, atheistic socialism, evolutionism and modern psychology (Freud). But this was the age of revival, the age of the launch of Evangelical Alliance concentrating on interdenominational prayer and on social action in name of Christ.

So there is reason for hope!

The new way is the old way

As William Wilberforce (in UK around 1850) on a certain moment knew that he was called to the fight against slavery (instead of becoming a pastor). And as Bonhoeffer took the decision before God and his conscience to combat the Nazi ideology, we in our little or even bigger corner are called to follow Christ in the midst of society and only with God’s help we will succeed in the battle against the ‘idols of our time’.

·       To refrain from fear and to establish a renewed confidence in the truth of the Gospel. As Jesus said: ‘You will know the truth and the truth will set you free’ (John 8, 32). This is the truth of God’s unconditional love for a lost world (John 3,16), for lost people as we are in ourselves. And ‘this love throws out fear’ (1 John 4, 18).

·       To promote and to work practically for a new Christian fellowship and brotherhood, against the secular individualism that uses community only as a matter of self-interest, or self-development, against fragmentation and isolation in our society.

·       To withstand the violence of words and guns a to give all our energy to the seemingly powerless act of prayer, and -for worldly eyes complete senselessness- honouring God in the liturgy of the church.

·       To withstand the enslavement of a super fluent society. Brother and sisters, let us live from the bread and the wine that God has provided in His mercy. This will give us life in abundance!

Thank you for your attention, God bless you all,

Revd. Niek Tramper, Gen Sec European Evangelical Alliance, and pastor in the Protestant Church of the Netherlands.