by Matt Helland
Isn’t Europe a Christian continent? “NO!” Europe is now a post-Christian continent where for many, the presence of the Christian church has more to do with history books and buildings than with anything relevant in the present or the future. That Christianity was at one time pervasive in Europe is very clear. In 1898, ninety-eight percent of people in the Netherlands were church members. In 2014, church attendance in Amsterdam is closer to two to three percent which is actually significantly higher with other parts of Europe. However, the echoes of Christianity in European culture can be clearly heard.
In the Netherlands, church holidays such as Pentecost, Ascension Day, Easter and Christmas are all celebrated with not one, but two public holidays. Until a few years ago, no stores were allowed to be open on Sunday and many large church buildings are now businesses, restaurants, night clubs, mosques or historical monuments. In the minds of many, Christianity is an irrelevant relic that can gather dust in the dustbins of history.
The decline of the Christian church in Europe is alarming. One British scholar told me that five major denominations in the United Kingdom (the Church of Wales, The Church of Scotland, The Methodist Church, the Salvation Army and the United Reformed Church) have publicly stated that if things continue to decline at the present rate, they will be non-existent sometime during the 2030s. This is significant in that many of our American Churches have their roots in these movements.
A team of thirty-five Americans from Great Commission Missions came to Amsterdam, the Netherlands, to scout it out as a potential site for a church plant. During that trip, the team spoke to random people throughout the city about their opinions regarding church and God. They were shocked when they found out that not one random person whom they spoke to during that entire trip had ever set foot in a church.
The generations growing up in Europe have very little Christian influence. One little girl at our weekly kid’s club asked the girl next to her, “who is Jesus Christ?”. Another little boy after hearing the Christmas story for the first time wondered why anyone would name their child a curse word. Another little girl after hearing that Jesus died when he was 33-years-old asked, “Oh, yeah? What did he die of?”
As a mission field, Western Europe is financially prosperous, but spiritually destitute. The church in Africa is growing fifty times faster and the church in Asia is forty-three times faster. As a whole, the church in the UK has not grown since the 1950s. Many European nations have less than 1% of an evangelical Christian presence. Thousands of cities and villages do not have even one evangelical church. What should our response be as the body of Christ?
Two shoe salesmen were once sent to a distant island where, upon arrival, they discovered that the people did not wear shoes. The first salesman returned home discouraged believing that he would never sell a single shoe in that land. The second salesman however called back to the shoe factory excitedly asking them to send a large shipment of shoes to the island. He exclaimed, “No one here wears shoes yet. This is the chance of a lifetime that we can not pass by!”
Two hunters went searching for wolves in order to get 500 dollars for each pelt. After a week of hunting and finding nothing one of them woke up in the middle of the night to find a pack of wolves closing in on them. He woke up the other hunter and said, “Wake up. We are going to be rich!”
In the last few years I have seen new opportunities for us as Christians in Europe There is a huge hunger for spirituality which can be seen by the popularity of tv psychics, Buddhas and eastern spiritual philosophy becoming hip. One woman we led to the Lord told us, “I knew the church had the Father and the Son, yet I never knew that you had the Holy Spirit.” The beauty of being a Christian in Europe is that we get to be challenged to rediscover the core of following Jesus and experiment with new ways of sharing our faith.
Most people confuse Christianity with a religious system of rules and regulations which smothers their freedom and limits their ability to be happy. Yet the total opposite is true as one woman who visited our home for the first time exclaimed, “How can this be? Here, I hear things I’ve know to be true all of my life. Here is the story of love, peace and healing; the story of rebuilding yourself; the story of unconditional love and care for people; here is the story of my heart! Only they bring Jesus on stage, claiming to be the truth, the way and the life. I never found a place where I could find the answers to my questions. I really wanted to find them, but in Jesus? No. That could simply not be. It just couldn’t. That was something for Christians, not for me.”
Eight months later, this woman became a Christian and is now discovering the greatest freedom and new life that she has experienced as a follower of Jesus. It took a long process of searching and asking questions, but she found that which everybody is looking for: Jesus. Not everybody knows that they are looking for Jesus, but that is exactly what we all long for.
Do I believe there is hope for Europe?…You better believe it. Scottish Reformer John Knox once said, “God give me Scotland or give me death.” This man’s passion and faith was influential in seeing his nation changed.
Dutch religious and political leader Abraham Kuyper at the founding of his Free University in Amsterdam proclaimed, “…there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry ‘Mine!’” Kuypers faith in Christ led him not only to start new churches, but also newspapers, political parties and educational institutions. Legislation he brought into effect still exist today in the Netherlands.
John Wesley, founder of the Methodist chruch, once proclaimed: “Give me one hundred men who love only God with all their heart and hate only sin with all their heart and we will shake the gates of hell and bring in the kingdom of God upon earth.”
Wesley’s “Methodist” or “Holiness”movement changed not only England but the United States as well. His movement was a forerunner of the Pentecostal movement which is growing exponentially in many parts of the world (Europe is one exception). The Europe of these men is long gone. A student to Kuyper’s Free University in Amsterdam told me that, “God [and his church] is dead in Europe.”
This diagnosis may seem true, but it is wrong. We are giving our lives to developing a new generation of European men and women who, like Kuyper, Knox, and Wesley will have faith to see cities and nations changed. We believe and dare we say are already seeing the emergence of a new generation of leaders and churches who will make known the message of Jesus Christ afresh and anew here in Europe. This is a commitment which demands prayer, love and a willingness to not just go to Europe, but to stay there. This is a commitment which our family has made.
As missionaries in the Netherlands, we are focusing our ministry on reaching a new generation for christ; weekly kid’s clubs where children, many of whom are Muslim, can hear Bible stories and about the love of Jesus for the first time. Also, making disciples by building relationship grounded in prayer, Bible study and accountability. We are planting churches which will start other churches who will reach not just Europeans, but also the many cultures and nations represented in our large cosmopolitan cities. Fruitful ministry in these areas can have influence for generations to come and can play a pivotal role in changing the spiritual landscape of our continent.
Europe is no longer “Christian”, yet let us dare to believe that God will use our lives and prayers to change the destiny of the Europe. “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field (Luke 10:2).” Will you join us in praying and asking God for workers for the harvest fields of Europe? What part could you possibly play in reaching Europe for Christ?