Jim Memory explores the crucial issues and trends which are shaping the context for Christian mission in Europe today
When you look at what is happening in Britain and the rest of Europe today it is easy to despair.
There are church buildings everywhere but many of their congregations are ageing or dwindling.
Christian values appear to be under attack left, right and centre. The Christian voice in the public square is muted by those who suggest that all public debate should be free from “God talk”.
When we watch the news, the issues can so easily overwhelm us: migration, Brexit, populist nationalism, climate change, transgender rights, not to mention the Covid pandemic.
Joining with God
It has become ever more common to hear Christians say that mission is about joining in with what God is already doing. So, what is God doing?
That was the question that prompted me to write a report on the context in which we find ourselves today. Most reports focus on just one issue, but Europe 2021: A Missiological Report resists the temptation to simplify things to one thing and takes a broad view. It provides an analysis of the key political, economic, social, environmental, and technological trends in Europe today. It then looks at the spiritual context, and the changes in thinking regarding our understanding of mission.
Covid-19 is probably the most significant shared experience in Europe since the second world war. So, for every issue I highlight, I also consider how the pandemic might have impacted the trends, before turning to consider some of the implications of all of that. I idenitified 15 issues and trends in the report but here are just a couple to whet your appetite:
Truth and Technology
Information Technology has transformed our lives in innumerable ways over the past 50 years, but one of the most profound impacts of the digital revolution is on our ability to discern what is true.
In a digital world, information whether true or false, spreads rapidly. Whether in the form of media reports, data or social media posts, information can be used to manipulate behaviour - whether or not it is real or true.
God has not abandoned Europe
Research is revealing that this vulnerability is the result of “the illusory truth effect”, a phenomenon where people rate repeated statements as more truthful than non-repeated ones. The more times we see a piece of information repeated, the more likely we are to believe it is true. Whether it is factually true or not is almost irrelevant. If it produces the desired result, whether that is the purchase of a certain product, a vote for a given party, or a more radical political response, that is all that matters.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown just how powerful this effect can be. Misinformation and conspiracy theories around Covid-19 and, more recently, about the vaccines, have undermined prevention measures, popularised dangerous treatments, and frustrated the possibility of achieving immunity in some countries. Most of us will know people who have refused the vaccine because of a video, a post, or a story they have seen on their smartphone.
How can we present the truth of the gospel today when people are so susceptible to digital deception? What does it mean to “guard your heart” (Proverbs 24:3) and “renew your mind” (Romans 12:2) when our heart and mind are being discipled by digital media 24 hours a day? Are church leaders equipping our congregations for discipleship in a digital world? These are important questions which require serious reflection.
Secularisation and Desecularisation
Data from the most recent edition of the European Values Survey (EVS 2017-20) indicates that 61% of Swedes, 53% of Dutch, 51% of Brits and Norwegians, and 50% of Czechs say they do not believe in God.
Another study of 16-29-year-old young people from across Europe published by Professor Stephen Bullivant of St Mary’s University in 2018 found that 70% of British youth say they have “no religion”. These statistics are sobering, yet God has not abandoned Europe.
Over the past 50 years, millions of Christians from the majority world have migrated to Europe. Every large city from Dublin to Dubrovnik has African or Latin American or Asian churches and often many from all three! Diaspora churches are changing the face of the church in Europe and the UK.
Yet here too there are challenges. Many diaspora churches find evangelising difficult. The answer is for closer collaboration between diaspora and native churches. As Harvey Kwiyani puts it, “The Africans have the zeal to pray and evangelise, while the Europeans may have a better grasp of the cultural gap that needs to be bridged in order to connect with the people. If we put these two together, we may have what we need for European Christianity.”
As secular Europeans face an uncertain future post-pandemic, we must make the most of this season of opportunity to preach the gospel of hope. Far from an eschatology of despair, these are times for us to be faithful in hope and expectant for the signs of resurrection and revival in Britain and Europe today.