Someone suggested on Twitter that if it keeps going on like this, Britain will die of news! In three weeks we have witnessed a political earthquake: a solid-looking, confident Prime Minister stepping down the next day, the Machiavellian drama of Boris and Gove, the advent of our second woman Prime Minister, an opposition in crisis, the Iraq Inquiry report, and, let’s not forget, the murder of a keen, new MP on the streets of her constituency one lunchtime. Our mundane national life has suddenly run amuck. We are in shock. This is all real. The earth has moved beneath our feet. We need to recover a new normal. But before we do, can I ask you to look beyond Britain’s rather engaging national conversation, to a bigger and pressing context. When we have left the EU, we will still be part of the continent of Europe. Brexit will be the leaving of a European transnational institution. It should not mean that as Christians we turn our backs on the nations of Europe. On the contrary, because of current events, this is the time for mission among the nations of Europe. Let me explain why I think that, and then set out some priorities for cross-cultural mission in Europe.
The crumbling of idolatries
When life is settled, gospel progress can be slow. People are reluctant to consider change, and they settle into the comforts of a now-centred life, focussing on career, possessions and self. But God uses events to shake the nations to their foundations (Hag. 2:7; Heb. 12:26-29), and I believe that that is happening right now. What I find most striking post-Referendum is the shock of the pro-EU lobby, whether that be the liberal secular elite in Britain’s political parties, the British media, our Universities and the City of London, or their cousins in capital cities across Europe. Their prevailing narrative has crashed
What did that narrative amount to? It was the power of the technocrat, that we can solve any problem with legislation, big government, economic algorithms and quantitative easing. It was also the belief that the values of our Christian past were outdated and illiberal, and should be rejected on a range of issues, most notably marriage and sexuality, so that we have the power to redefine marriage as we choose, as well as to define when life starts and when we choose to end it. If the public want to change, their will is sovereign. There are no abiding, absolute moral values. Both economic and social liberalism have no place for God. In place of God, they had idolised both political power and money. Now both are crumbling before their eyes, in a matter of days, and the spiritual crisis in their lives is palpable. The angry response to the Brexit vote by the liberal elite has been illuminating. It is as though they simply cannot accept that a majority of voters could make such a decision: ‘All those people must surely have been misguided to have made such a decision. They must have been lied to. They didn’t have the facts. They weren’t capable of making such a huge decision. It therefore wasn’t a valid vote…and we must have another one….until we get the right result!’ (Let me say that I am impressed by the way that most Remain voters I know have accepted the decision and moved on.) Those who cannot move on, who must declare themselves ‘The 48’, (just like the ‘We are the 45’ movement in Scotland) and who must fight to reverse this decision with a religious zeal, in so doing have demonstrated the idolatry that has become part of life across the nations of Europe. People are seeing their gods destroyed, and they cannot bear it.
It is exactly at this point where we must be most zealous in proclaiming the gospel. There is a better Saviour, a God who deserves all our worship, who turned the nations of Europe upside down with the gospel 499 years ago, and who can do so again. It is hard to think of a time when the gospel of God’s redeeming grace was ever more relevant than it is today. It is time for Christians to have confidence in proclaiming the glory of Jesus and the kingdom of God, the grace that justifies the ungodly and redeems us from the empty way of life handed down to us by our forefathers. It is time to tell people that the secular vision of the world has failed, and life is more than money and raw political power. We can renew our public life if we are prepared to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and return to God what was his all along. It is time to call people to rediscover life under the rule of a sovereign, eternal God. This is a huge task, but it should motivate us to join with our Christian brothers and sisters across the nations of Europe to work for a new Reformation. Now is the time for mission to the nations of Europe.
A patchwork of nations, not just a continent
I have used the phrase ‘the nations of Europe’ because simply saying ‘Europe’ is such a generalisation. Europe is a continent of nations, each nation with their own language and dialects, minority people groups, a shared history and a defined culture. They are shaped by their varied climate, so the national temperaments of Sweden, Scotland, Portugal and Bulgaria are each quite different. If you are thinking of serving God in ‘mission in Europe’, make up your mind which country you are going to serve in, because you will need to invest time and effort in learning the local language, and understanding the richness of the local culture. I am concerned that too many people who come in from other continents to serve imagine that everyone can be reached through English. It may be the lingua franca of business and politics, but Europe is a patchwork of many diverse heart languages, and to reach nationals you have to get to their heart.
There is another danger in doing mission in the nations of Europe. Because the evangelical cause is so weak numerically, and the Catholic or Orthodox cultures are so pervasive, the cultural setting of evangelical churches can easily be seen as foreign. Indigenous churches need to work hard at what they sing, to try and capture the best tunes in their nation’s music, and to try and write hymns and songs that express Christian truth in the way people write in that culture. It can be depressing to go to yet another church in another language and hear yet another translation of ‘In Christ alone’ or ‘My Jesus my Saviour’ being sung. I love it when a church sings something I have never heard, and with joy! But making the gospel indigenous in this way is more than just about what we sing. The whole style of church gathering can feel like a foreign franchise if we are not careful. The way to avoid this is for missionaries coming into a European nation to partner with national workers. That will produce a much more indigenous church. They should also be willing to read the Bible with national Christians with a humility that expects God’s all-sufficient Word to say more in this nation than we might have heard it say in our home nation. It is a wonderful thing to read the Bible with someone from another nation. They see things you will not see. The missionary goes to learn, not just to teach, and they must be careful not to impose their cultural norms without realising it.
If you are prepared to be a genuinely cross-cultural missionary in one of the nations of Europe, there is a great work for you to do. But it will require a long-term investment of time in language learning and settling into a culture to see the gospel really begin to take root in that nation. It will also need another priority.
Getting back to the heart of mission: planting churches!
There are loads of good things people can be doing across Europe. One good thing to be doing is training leaders, because clear, evangelical, reformed theological training is in such short supply after the devastations of liberalism. Next to this I would say that reaching students is strategic, as some of these will be the leaders of tomorrow. But these are not the greatest task in mission. The greatest task of all is church-planting. Yet it troubles me that many come to Europe as missionaries to do too many other things: translating Sunday School materials, running Christian bookshops, organising summer camps, running a retreat centre or a Christian radio station, distributing Bibles, working with street women in the red light district, setting up a drug rehab centre. These are all really good things to be doing, but my overriding impression is that they have become the main thing. Mission has become about setting up a ‘project’, when the real heart of mission, especially in the nations of Europe, needs to be the planting of churches, for without gospel churches all these other projects lose the spiritual oxygen of their existence. We have so many ancillary ministries in countries where there are pitifully few churches.
Someone said to me that the reason for this is that missionaries coming into some countries find it impossible to work with national leaders in local churches. In the end it never works out, so in frustration they go off to do their own project which keeps them ‘on the field’, and so another ancillary ministry is born. There may be some truth in this, especially in post-Communist countries where models of leadership learnt in the Communist era have yet to give way to a more servant mentality. But I’m not so sure. Church-planting among the nations of continental Europe is hard work, and it often takes fifteen years before a church becomes properly established. It requires tenacity, and faith in the power of God, a confidence that God’s Word will do its work over the long-term, and a warm pastoral heart for people. It is the hardest task, but the most important of all, for what the nations of Europe need most of all is a gospel-proclaiming, Bible-expounding, doctrine-teaching, disciple-making church in every major town and city. Many friends have told me that John Stott set the Anglican evangelical vision for a Bible-teaching church in every market town where a grammar school boy could be spiritually fed (please send me a citation as I can’t find one). Why limit this vision to England, or Britain? We should have such a passion for every nation of Europe and far beyond. If we can put church-planting back at the heart of mission in Europe, under God such churches can turn Europe upside down.
A couple of years ago I spent a few days in Belgrade, staying in the vast Hotel Yugoslavia. Recently reopened after years of neglect, they had installed an American-style Diner in the ground floor, which seemed most incongruous. There wasn’t much to get excited about in that concrete part of New Belgrade, so that all-American diner was buzzing every night with teenagers eager for a hotdog and a milkshake with friends while Buddy Holly and Elvis played on the jukebox. What a strange view they must have had of the West as Serbia began to emerge from the Milosevic years. What struck me was the slogan (in English) on the wall. ‘Eat here once, and you’ll always return.’ I’m not sure it’s a great line for a diner, but it should describe the churches we want to plant in every city and town across the nations of Europe. When people hear the Word of God being preached in their heart-language and culture, they will know this gospel is for them, it is theirs, and they will always return for more. That and that alone will turn the nations of Europe upside down.