Looking Back to Look Forward
Europe is hugely varied. Albania and Switzerland could almost be on different planets. However, the entire continent shares a common heritage, geographical space, and some elements of culture in a globalised world. Europe today also shares some significant similarities with the world in which the early Christians lived. It is pluralistic, multicultural, hedonistic, and perhaps as open to new ideas as that century was.
Christians in first century “Europe” (today’s name for the western end of the Eurasian landmass) did not know what a difference they would make. They simply knew that Jesus had died for their sins and had risen from the dead. They understood that the cross and the resurrection had cosmic consequences. As a result, they went out and, by God’s grace, changed the world.
The Early Days of Christianity: Christ’s Arrival in Europe
The Book of Acts records the growth of the early Church in “Europe.” But what was Christ’s impact on European society? Rodney Stark, professor of sociology and comparative religion at the University of Washington writes,
Pagan and Christian writers are unanimous not only that Christian Scripture stressed love and charity as the central duties of faith, but that these were sustained in everyday behaviour. I suggest reading the following passage from Matthew (25:35-40) as if for the very first time, in order to gain insight into the power of this new morality, when it was new, not centuries later in more cynical and worldly times….When the New Testament was new, these were the norms of the Christian communities.1
Keith Hopkins, professor of ancient history at King’s College in Cambridge, is not always sympathetic in the way he writes about Christians. Nonetheless, he writes, “For all its idiosyncratic excesses, Christianity also promoted an image of self-sacrificing piety, of virtue, generosity to the poor, and kindliness to the sick.”2 And again,
The visual world of Christianity was startlingly different, in image and meaning, from the classical world of paganism. But the greatest achievement of ancient Christianity in this period was, I think, its remoulding of social ethics, its purposeful construction of the virtuous believer.3
And that remoulding of social ethics by a minority—often a marginalised and even persecuted minority—shaped every area of life.
Twenty Centuries Later
Dramatic changes have occurred across Europe (and the rest of the world) since that first century—from Constantine’s conversion and the growth of Constantinian Christendom, via the Enlightenment and the age of discovery to the present post-modern world. But one other influence must be mentioned in the European context: despite the great impact of the good news of Jesus and the resurrection, biblical faith is not the only root of European civilisation or of European culture (or European forms of Christianity). Because the other major root of “European civilisation” is Greco-Roman, European Christian thinking about life and church is shaped by both its Greco-Roman and Enlightenment contexts.
The gospel is always contextualised. Jesus was a first century Jewish Palestinian carpenter. The early Christians in Palestine were Jewish believers. They worked hard to contextualise a Hebrew message to a Gentile setting—and used Greek words and patterns of thought to do so. The early Church’s theologians worked out their theology in a Greek context.
Today’s European Christians are both their children and children of the Enlightenment (with its Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian roots). That needs to be borne in mind in any consideration of the “contemporary Church in Europe.”
Today, Europe is complicated, but exciting. It is:
1. Post-everything. Rejecting authority, it is post-industrial, post-rational, post-Christian, post-communist, and post-modern. It sometimes seems to be post-hope and post-caring. At least this seems to be the case when it comes to elections. Very few people vote, perhaps largely because of cynicism about politicians.
A recent “YouGov” survey for the UK’s Daily Telegraph found that less than thirty percent of the people trust their local politician (percentages are lower for national politicians). These levels of trust are matched in recent Eurobarometer and Pew Foundation surveys (in the European Union and the USA, respectively).
A recent Prêt a Manger nutritional information booklet has this quotation from Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks: “The idols of today are unmistakable—self-esteem without effort, fame without achievement, sex without consequences, wealth without responsibility, pleasure without struggle and experience without commitment.” This is a very helpful analysis; it is equally interesting that Prêt a Manger feels it is commercially positive to quote it! Europe is post-everything. And yet somehow we know there is something wrong, something missing.
2. Highly secularised. Struggles within the European Parliament, for example, are often between the secular (often militant, a form of secular fundamentalism) and people of faith (of varying flavours). Christians need to work hard to be taken seriously in the public square. Historically, evangelicals have sometimes retreated into private piety, suggesting that Christianity is about personal faith alone, and sometimes expecting special privileges.
Christianity is about personal faith; however, it is also about public justice and righteousness. It is about relationships between rich and poor. It is about ethics in business. It is about abortion and euthanasia. It is about medicine, education, and public policy. It is about making a difference in this life and the next. Christians have as much right as everybody else to have input into the debate about the future of our schools, hospitals and offices, cities, countries, continent, and world.
On the flip side, some Christians automatically assume they should have more rights than others to influence and shape our countries because they are Christian. The reality is that all of Europe is now very pluralistic, with highly secularised media and political systems. Christians do not have more rights than others—but neither should they have fewer.
However, Christians in Europe need to translate scriptural truth into language that can be understood in the secular context. In this way, all of society can hear the message and benefit from the wisdom of scripture.
3. Globalised. The multi-racial nature of Europe’s societies is one sign of globalisation, but the impact of globalisation goes way beyond this obvious area (i.e., global politics, organised violence, global trade and markets, global finance, global production networks, etc.).
4. In search of identity. The big questions on the political agenda are identity questions: Who are we? What do we want to become? What does it mean to be Spanish, Serbian, or British? What does it mean to be European? The European Union Constitutional Treaty debate revolved around these questions. The question of Turkey’s European Union membership revolves around identity issues. Ongoing tensions in the Balkans (particularly in parts of former Yugoslavia) have identity issues at their centre. Much of the debate at national elections revolves around these questions. The question of who we are and should become is central to human existence. And what is also certain is that, despite the rampant individualism of our age, people want to belong, to be identified as part of identifiable social networks.
5. Very open to spiritual ideas. Europeans have rejected Christendom. But there is, arguably, more openness to spiritual reality than there has been for a long time. See, for example,
- the fascination with the para-normal and the afterlife in films
- the seriousness of some of the lyrics in contemporary rock music
- the sociological analysis of people like Grace Davie or Philip Jenkins
- the growing interest in pre-Christian religions and paganism. Some believe this is a major trend (see Jeff Fountain’s 2005 book, Living as People of Hope). Certainly, there is a fascination with the occult and with esoteric questions (e.g., the popularity of the large esoteric fair in Basel every September)
- the belief that Islam will take over in Europe (In my view, the dominant “spirituality” will continue to be secular materialism.),
- that many creative types and younger people are aware that there is more to life than this4
- the 4 March 2007 Tearfund survey, which found an unexpected openness to invitations to attend church
- the fact that although evangelical church growth across Europe has not been dramatic (except in Ukraine and in ethnic minority churches), there are several indicators that show steady growth in evangelicalism in the last twenty years
- the fact that atheism is becoming more aggressive and seeking to proselytise (I suspect this is a sign of desperation, in the light of fresh openness to spiritual issues.)
To be continued…
1. Stark, Rodney. 1996. The Rise of Christianity. Princeton, New Jersey, USA: Princeton University Press. 86-87.
2. Hopkins, Keith. 1999. A World Full of Gods: Pagans, Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 136.
3. Ibid. 136.
4. There are indications that this dissatisfaction could become a wider trend. Secular materialism has failed, by any measure. Surveys about happiness show that after a certain level of affluence, people are less happy, because the false appetite for more things (created by aggressive advertising) can never be fully satisfied. And there is a growing awareness of the huge damage that we are doing to the planet. This raises questions about the validity of secular materialism as a foundation for the future.