Looking at Europe, we speak of a complex and diverse continent, not just in political terms, but also in spiritual terms. Yes, Europe once formed the heart of the Reformation, yet large parts of Europe have never been touched by the Reformation at all. Yes, Europe has a rich spiritual history, yet many people have never held a Bible in their hand, nor read the Bible, nor do they know of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Most western and northern parts of Europe (Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands) were once predominantly Protestant—either Lutheran or Reformed. Yet today, most of these countries have moved to some form of a post-Christian culture. Looking at other parts of Europe, especially Southern Europe (Poland, Austria, Italy, Spain, Portugal or Belgium), they remain strongly Roman Catholic with a much higher church affiliation than in nominal Protestantism. And turning to the Eastern parts of our continent, we often see a very strong and traditional Orthodox expression of the Christian faith. So in talking about Europe, all these different contexts need to be taken into consideration.
What about evangelism in such a diverse Europe? Many people portray especially the western part of Europe as a tough, secular soil for evangelism. While secularism might have been a mark of the 1970s and 1980s in Western Europe, it is less so today. While the percentage of evangelical Christians remains fairly low, we see that many people today long for some form of spirituality. Especially the younger generation, strongly brought up in the mindset of postmodernity, are very open to an authentic and relevant expression of faith.
So, the challenge to us as evangelicals is, can we introduce a new generation to fresh expressions of our historic faith, while remaining faithful to the claims of Scripture? This is why evangelism that includes time for fellowship around a meal has proven to be successful. On the other hand, using street evangelism and door-to-door visits to gain a platform for the Gospel have proven more difficult than in decades past.
Turning to the predominantly Roman Catholic countries, we see that in some areas the Roman Catholic Church itself actually speaks of having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Although evangelicals strongly disagree with significant aspects of Roman Catholic doctrine, this development at least seems to indicate that in these countries, evangelicals will find some receptiveness to the message of Christ. Another development is a growing interest in reading the Bible. In many of these countries 100 years ago, Catholics were forbidden to read the Bible for themselves.
For evangelicals in these areas, as in many other areas, friendships are key in evangelism. Research shows that those who respond to the invitations at larger evangelistic rallies tend to be those who have had a friendship with a believer before.
In the predominantly Orthodox countries of Europe, we have seen some major church growth in countries like Romania, Moldova and the Ukraine since the fall of the Iron Curtain. At the same time, there is often still quite a hostile attitude toward evangelical churches in many of these countries, as there is generally speaking also a tight relationship between the Orthodox Church and the government. But traditional forms of evangelism are still relevant and effective, such as inviting people to evangelistic rallies in villages and towns.
In all parts of Europe except the eastern parts, another fact has to be taken into consideration: migration. Already today, the largest churches of Europe are churches of believers from the Global South (Asia, Africa and Latin America). While we see a rise of Islam in Europe, we also see a rise of evangelical Christianity due to migration. To give an example: Probably half of today’s evangelicals in Austria are of foreign origin, and much of the impressive growth of the French Protestant Church in recent years is due to the growing number of African churches.
While at this stage they predominantly reach out to people of their own cultural background, they will be key in reaching out to their traditional fellow European citizens in the coming years. And interestingly, many Western Europeans, when talking to Christians from the Global South, are willing to listen and accept what they hear as more authentic than if a traditional evangelical European would share the same.
Let me close by briefly touching on the recent inflow of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. While many are from Muslim backgrounds, many of them are also totally disillusioned with Islam, and they are reaching out to Christians to hear more about our God. Many churches have started Bible studies among these Muslim refugees, and quite a number have become believers and joined local churches. While for decades we’ve hardly seen any Afghans turning to the Lord, this has changed drastically in the past two years. God is touching lives!
What is the state of evangelism in Europe today? The answer is as complex as the continent. At the same time, new methods of evangelism are to be discovered in which personal relationships play a key role. Quick conversions are unlikely, but an honest friendship needs to be built, showing a real interest in the other person, while becoming authentic about one’s own faith.
Is there spiritual hope for Europe? Yes, there is! While we don’t see revivals or mass conversions at this stage, the Lord is at work in a quiet yet steady way. ©2017 Frank Hinkelmann
Frank Hinkelmann, Ph.D., is president of the European Evangelical Alliance. He directs OM’s ministry in Europe and teaches church history at several institutions.