Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Christianity's future in Europe

The rumors of Europe's Christian death are overblown. To read American commentators, one would believe that Europe was a completely secular society without regard or concern for anything spiritual. I don't see that.

What I do see is the rejection of classic organized Christianity, or what might be better called "Old Church". The Old Church model is the national church model; it is the model that has the Queen as the head of the government and the church, it is the model that has the government collecting the tithe, it is the model where there are only two choices on Sunday morning: the national Protestant church and the Catholic Church.

Europe's history has been fraught with religious wars and divisions. Europeans have seen the Church wrapped around the State for so long that they are distrustful. When the Catholic Church was silent on the Holocaust, Europeans are probably right to wonder what the heck the Church is there for.

I see two issues that have produced a Europe where church attendance has fallen to single digits. The first is as "Grace Davie, an expert on religion at Exeter University in England," sees it, "the Enlightenment was seen as freedom from religion ... getting away from dogma, whereas in the [US] it meant freedom to believe." After decades of religious wars, Europe was going to be free from that chaos and remove religion from the public sphere for the public good. Whereas, in America with its melting pot of Europeans, each bringing their own variant of Christianity, it was too scattered and decentralized to control. The 20th century showed that the Enlightenment philosophers were wrong. It was national concerns, and not religion, that was the cause of conflict. That realization hasn't sunk yet into the European psyche, so Europeans are still very fearful of organized religion.

The second is that there is little choice in the marketplace. Most Western European countries only have the State Church and/or the Catholic Church. With so little competition for members, the mainline Protestant churches and the Catholic Church have become lazy. Their messages and methods are boring and irrelevant for the modern European. Liturgy, big drafty churches and rituals that don't make any sense dominate a Sunday morning. Unlike America where each street corner has a different church, with different styles and different teaching, in Europe it is a one-size-fits-all approach. If church in London wasn't any good, there is little reason to believe it will be different in Plymouth.

HTB is highly successful because it has brought a "contemporary" style of worship and message to the weekly Sunday meeting. Rather than robes, organs and choirs, we have a vicar with a dayplanner, drums and PowerPoint. This isn't radical in an American setting, but completely new in the Anglican world. Of course, that style is copied straight out of the highly competitive American market.

In fact, Sandy Miller, the former vicar of HTB for 25 years has recently been installed as a "Bishop in missions" to bring his radical view of how the Sunday service should happen for a 21st century audience. Alpha works because it defies everyone's expectations for 'church'.

I have much faith in a Christian resurgence in Europe. Several high profile events have forced people to reconsider if they are believers. The "Muslim threat" is requiring Europeans to reconsider their Christian roots. The influx of believers from Eastern and Southern Europe into "Old Europe" is bringing life to churchs that have been dormant for years. In Britain, African immigrants from west and southern Africa are bringing a pentecostal faith that literally shakes people out of their indifference. In fact, some have said that Africans will be the forefront of re-evangelism of Europe because their faith is so real and so alive.

European Christianity will probably never reach the American levels of attendance or adherence. Secularism has a much stronger foothold here and makes a lot more sense with a European mindset. However, secularism still doesn't answer many of the fundamental questions of life that Jesus does. Europeans still wonder "is there more than this?" Europeans still want to know "what happens when you die?" Europeans have broken relationships and need forgiveness.

A revival will need faithful Christians and the Holy Spirit, but I have faith that in 25 years, Europeans will be going to church in greater numbers than they are now assuming the Old Church model dies and a newer, more relevant, less nationalistic Church rises in its place.

It is, of course, ironic that as America moves closer to a union of the Church and State, I believe Europe's revival lies in its ability to disentangle them.