To reach Europeans with the gospel we need to understand their cultural context. For more than a century, the world views of most Europeans have been shaped by a combination of philosophies, namely relativism, pluralism and secularism.
Relativism, an outworking of Enlightenment philosophy, is the view that ‘true truth’ (as Francis Schaeffer called absolute truth1) is unknowable.
Pluralism similarly assumes that all claims to truth are relative, and therefore equally valid. It calls for universal toleration, but does not extend toleration to those who disagree with its presuppositions.
Secularism believes this world in its material aspect is all that there is. The stark choice is between playing the game of lifeâ€Š’â€Š’eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’ (Luke 12:19; 1 Corinthians 15:32)â€Š’â€Šor refusing to do so, by means of suicide. Albert Camus, the existentialist French philosopher, argued that suicide is the ‘one truly serious philosophical problem’.2
At the same time, Europe’s peoples have been over-exposed to second-hand, media-driven presentations of Christianity. These have been derived from images associated with Christianity’s history, art and architecture. They have not always been helpful or biblical, so that Christianity is now regarded as a spent force.
What about modern Protestantism? This is now woefully disconnected from its sixteenth-century roots. Theological liberalism and Barthian neo-orthodoxy have devastated European theological institutions and taken their toll of the faith and ministries of academics, pastors and churchgoers. Many pastors belonging to the historic Reformed denominations in western Europe openly advocate a Christianity shorn of its supernaturalism.
While, interestingly, Calvin’s sensus divinitatis3 has not been eradicated from Europeans, the cultural context has created a vacuum that is now being filled by Islam, Eastern and neo-pagan religions, and quasi-religious secular humanism.
Yet, in spite of all this, evangelicals are, uniquely, supposed to be experiencing ‘church growth’. However, this growth has often come as a result of capitulation to the thinking and behaviour of the unconverted masses. For European evangelicalism has also been worn down by Enlightenment philosophy, Higher Criticism, Darwinian optimism, modern psychology and existentialism.
In both western and eastern Europe, many evangelical churches seem mesmerised by all that is modern. They are not so much looking to the Bible for their beliefs and practices as to the consensus around them.
The questions being asked by them are not ‘What is true? What will God approve?’, but ‘What will work? What will attract the outsider?’ Although theoretically the Bible is held in high esteem, pragmatic considerations dictate the way they think and function.
For many years, there has been a tendency to equate mission with everything Jesus expects his people to do in this world. No longer is mission seen as the church sending people to preach the gospel, in order to bring others to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. The church is now urged to concern itself with the vast humanitarian needs of mankind, to agitate for social justice and to work for a more ecologically-friendly environment 4.
All these concerns are placed on the same footing as gospel proclamation, but for all the good done by New Testament believers in such areas (Galatians 6:10) it is doubtful whether the apostles understood the Great Commission in this way.
While there can be no objection to individual Christians being involved in the political, social and economic spheres, it is dangerous for churches to do so. Churches that go this way too readily become identified with secondary issues and lesser emphases, rather than with the gospel.
How is the church to respond to all this? How is she to be faithful to her missionary obligations, while remaining rightly sensitive to her cultural context?
There are three priorities for the church. First, it must actively establish truth in people’s minds.
Evangelicals have given too much ground to the enemies of truth. Instead of being boldly set ‘for the defence of the gospel’ (Philippians 1:16), we have tended to retreat into pietistic ghettos and fail to provide ‘an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that you have’ (1 Peter 3:15). Ministers and missionaries need grounding in apologetics.
In an address delivered nearly 100 years ago at Princeton Theological Seminary, Professor J. Gresham Machen acknowledged that ‘the regenerative power of God’ was crucial in evangelism, yet also reminded his hearers that ‘God usually exerts that [regenerative] power in connection with certain prior conditions of the human mind, and it should be ours to create, so far as we can, with the help of God, those favourable conditions for the reception of the gospel.
‘False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervour of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion’.5
Alongside a clear, earnest proclamation of the gospel, there must be a willingness to engage with and undermine ideas that have reduced Christianity to the status of ‘a harmless delusion’.
Sadly, for more than a century, much evangelism has been too focused on methodology. We have become obsessed with ways of attracting people into churches and succeeded in doing little more than mimic the faddishness of the world. This has been closely allied to a loss of confidence in God-given truth, proclaimed in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Secondly, there is a need for congregations to seek a new sense of the spiritual and eternal.The church needs life as well as light. Mission can only flourish where there is spiritual vitality; mission is an overspill of spiritual life.
There has been a regrettable tendency to confuse liveliness with life. Meetings have been multiplied, countless innovations adopted, but the underlying conviction has been that all that is needed to halt the decline is to ‘tweak’ the system.
Interestingly, the one meeting overlooked in this approach has been ‘the prayer meeting’â€Š’â€Šthe place where we are reminded that our sufficiency is only to be found in God (2 Corinthians 2:16; 3:5).
Fundamentally, there is an absence of a sense of the greatness of God, the glory of the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the eternal destiny of all human beings.
This absence is, in turn, related to the role and work of preachers. We are in need of preachers of the Word of God. We do not need mere ‘talkers’; we need those who are called and gifted by God to proclaim the great truths of the gospel in such a way that those who hear its message cannot remain immune to its claims.
The gospel needs to be preached in the power of the Holy Spirit. Its truths need to grip the lives of the people of God and, through their response to it, the lives of people outside the worshipping community. We must realise again our utter helplessness. Without the intervention and aid of the living God, we can do nothing.
The resurgence of interest in Reformed theology among evangelicals over the last 50 years has brought welcome intellectual vigour and doctrinal clarity into the churches. Nevertheless, the Reformed movement must not degenerate into mere intellectualism. Nor must it forget the vital biblical distinction between primary and secondary truths if it is to remain balanced and united. All truth is important, but not all truth is equally important.
Thirdly, the church needs to recapture a biblical view of her role in the world.Her primary task is the proclamation of the gospel. This is what she should be known for at home and overseas.
In a materialistic age we must be constantly proclaiming, and especially in Europe: ‘What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?’ (Matthew 16:26).
1. F. Schaeffer, The God Who Is There, Complete Works, vol. 1, Crossway, 1982, p.143.
2. A. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1955, p.12.
3. J. Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 1, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, pp.43-47.
4. Kirk, New Dictionary of Theology, pp.434-436.
5. J. G. Machen, Christianity and Culture from Selected Shorter Writings (edited by D. G. Hart), Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2004, p.404.
Adapted from an address given by the author at the Mission in Europe Conference in the John Owen Centre, London, in September 2006.