Those who have dismissed Europe as a post-Christian continent lost to the Gospel may be surprised to learn that everything isn’t all doom and gloom. Take the reports of a new evangelical church being established in France—long accepted to be one of the most secularized countries in the region—every 10 days or so.
In a nation of around 66 million where evangelicals account for just 1 percent, that may be minor progress, for sure. But it’s one of a number of signs of spiritual life to be found in a part of the world many consider to have been swallowed by secularism, materialism, and increasingly, Islam.
Yet “the church is growing slowly,” says Jean-Luc Cosnard, president of French publisher Editions Vida, and French board member of Christian Trade Association International until its closure in 2013. Much of the growth is taking place in immigrant churches, he observes. “They’re very religious and seek for God. They’re in search of more prayer, more miracles.”
With such diversity of languages, cultures, and history, it’s almost impossible to make meaningful generalizations about Europe—some 750 million people in 50 countries stretching across five time zones.
But understanding the trends, the challenges, the obstacles, and the opportunities is important for everyone concerned to see the church there grow—including those called to resource her with materials for evangelism and discipleship.
‘God is At Work’
“Everything I say about Europe would be true and false, like the blind man and the elephant,” says Jeff Fountain, a long-time Youth With A Mission leader in Europe who now heads The Schuman Centre for European Studies, helping Christians understand Europe’s rich Christian heritage, and chairs the annual Hope for Europe roundtable bringing together Christian ministry leaders.
“The state of the church in Europe is very patchy, reflecting the complex background.” But, he adds, “God is at work in Europe in all sorts of ways.”
The evidence can be seen beyond France, in the continuing spread of the England-born Alpha course, introducing Christianity to those outside the church in a non-confrontational way; the growth of megachurches often eschewing historic church buildings for industrial center-like premises; and the immigrant church growth Cosnard spotlights.
For Clem Jackson, editor of Together, the trade magazine for the Christian resources industry in the UK, the biggest challenge facing the church isn’t materialism, atheism, secularism, or New Age spiritualism.
It’s “probably apathy,” he suggests. “The church is seen as irrelevant and not having anything to say for many people. Those who are materially well heeled don’t see a need for God, those who are poor and marginalized may still be somewhat suspicious that the church wants something from them for any help they might give. And those who adopt ‘alternative’ lifestyles probably regard the church as anti their way of life.”
Two things are key if the European church is to realize the potential that lies before it, however, Fountain is persuaded. She needs to recover a sense of her own history, and learn the cultural languages of those she wants to reach.
Most Christians have “very little understanding about what God has done in the past and therefore very little faith about what He can do in the future,” he comments. “We tend to have a lot more faith in what the enemy is up to than what God is up to.”
Part of that recovery of perspective involves recognizing just how deeply the Bible is woven into the fabric of European society.
“The foundations that created Western civilization come out of the Bible,” he says. “The paradox of Europe is that it is the continent most shaped by the Bible and most shaped by the rejection of the Bible. The story of Europe really can be told in terms of a love-hate relationship with Jesus.”
‘A Great Opportunity’
Martin Robinson, the principal of Birmingham, England-based ForMission College, which offers new-style training for church planters and church leaders, sees “growing and increasing signs of recovery” in the church, too.
Churches are involved in some praiseworthy initiatives in social issues, he says, like street pastors, food banks, working among refugees—so much so that politicians are waking up to the impact Christians are making on a personal level.
Jackson also points to areas of social justice as ones where the church and church-related charities “can make a real difference,” stepping in where government initiatives are being cut.
“As more people are impacted by and connected to Christians through these support mechanisms, we have a great opportunity to share the good news,” he says.
While such initiatives may touch individuals, that’s a long way from effecting deep cultural change. By and large, the church “has no idea how to connect to the public square,” says Robinson. “Learning how to speak in the public square and connect with the culture is one of the big things that we’ve got to learn.”
[quote]“Our purpose is to make the books available not only for rich people but also for the poor ones.”—Peter Vohmann[/quote]
There’s a clear need for resources to help Christians recover an awareness of how deep their faith’s roots in Europe go and equip them to present the gospel to different communities—from disaffected young Westerners to migrant Muslims.
But the cultural and linguistic patchwork of the continent makes that a challenge. Peter Vohmann’s Evangelical Publisher and Literature Mission in Hungary gives away more than a third of its evangelistic literature, supporting the effort through donations.
“We try to sell our books at cost price, or many times we give them freely, mainly for other missions,” he says. “Our purpose is to make the books available not only for rich people but also for the poor ones.”
The market in a country where evangelicals make up less than 5 percent of the population is quite small, he notes, and publishers mainly produce “popular themes.” More expensive, larger-volume books like commentaries “are rarely available.”
‘A Huge Impact’
Perhaps no one is better positioned for an overview of the Christian resources landscape in Europe than Gary Chamberlin, CLC (Christian Literature Centers) International’s European regional director, based in Basel, Switzerland.
The ministry has some 60 stores in almost 20 countries—the most in the UK (20), which remains arguably the hub of Christian resources for Europe by virtue of the commonality of its language, and then France (15). In-store sales generally have been on the decline since 2009, resulting in a number of store closures. But Internet sales are growing, accounting for a quarter of revenues in some places.
The church in Eastern and Central Europe boomed after the fall of Communism, bolstered by an inflow of money for starting churches, seminaries, and Christian publishing. But much of that financial aid has since been diverted elsewhere.
“Today it isn’t so easy for publishers to find financial resources to publish significant titles and print runs are much lower now—resulting in more expense for each book printed,” says Chamberlin.
Price is a headache “because the market is narrow, so the cost of production is higher,” Cosnard points out.
“Profit margins are extremely tight in Christian retail and in publishing in Eastern/Central Europe,” agrees Chamberlin. “In many countries the challenge is financial viability. Expenses are high and profit margins are often not high enough to offset the expenses. I’m not talking about even making a significant profit at the end of the year but just making enough to cover expenses is hugely challenging. This puts a lot of pressure on cash flow.”
The economic crisis in Europe has had “a huge impact” in many countries, notably Spain. “Unemployment has grown in many countries, making it more difficult for people to have enough money to buy as many books and Bibles as they would like,” says Chamberlin.
The flood of refugees fleeing unrest in Syria is a major factor, as European countries wrestle with the seemingly conflicting demands of humanitarian aid and national security. Indeed geopolitical unrest was cited as the biggest single risk to domestic economic growth in Europe in the December 2015 Economic Conditions Snapshot by management consultants McKinsey & Company—higher than any other region in the world.
‘The Ripest Mission’
While the immigration issue may be an economic damper, it’s also the church’s chance to shine, according to Fountain. Refugees comprise “the ripest mission,” he says. “The way that Christians have responded to the refugee situation in Europe is terrific; they’re everywhere, helping. They’re really acting as salt and light.”
[quote]“I know that in Germany many churches and Christians are involved in reaching out both spiritually and practically.”—Gary Chamberlin[/quote]
If that sounds alarming to those who see the refugee flood as more of a threat to security than an opportunity for the Gospel, it may in part be because of misinformation. According to European Union statistics, Fountain says, almost half the region’s immigrants are active church members. So much for the alleged flood of Muslims, who actually make up only a small percentage of the total.
“It puts a whole different spin on our understanding of the refugee issue,” he says. “Let’s not get carried away with all this fear. Love always risks: we must choose the option of love rather than fear.”
Terrorism and the economic uncertainty it fosters provide some of the biggest opportunities for the church, echoes Cosnard. “The church has a message of peace and hope.”
Germany, Greece, and Italy have been most impacted by the refugee crisis, says Chamberlin. “I know that in Germany many churches and Christians are involved in reaching out both spiritually and practically.”
Many of the million or so who have arrived in Germany are from Syria and well educated, which “should ensure a strong work force for them for the coming decades as the concern has been that since the birthrate is so low that they would not be able to maintain their strong economy,” he notes.
While the rise of Islam needs to be noted, it is “a challenge that can be overstated,” believes Robinson. Immigrants account for much of the growth of the church in Europe, he adds. Many of the churches that are growing are serving people who have arrived from Africa and South America.
“It’s quite a vibrant situation,” he says while acknowledging that increase isn’t without its challenges, notably retaining the next generation more likely to identify with their host culture than their parents’.
The immigrant influx “provides opportunities to reach many people groups” to be found in expatriate communities across Western Europe, Chamberlin believes. Many CLC shops have foreign-language sections where they sell not only Bibles in different languages but also many books.
“For example,” he says, “CLC Italy sells a considerable amount of product in Romanian, Spanish, and English—not to mention Bibles in Bulgarian, Russian, Polish, and Tagalog [the Philippines].” Meanwhile the CLC store in Inverness, Scotland, carries a fair number of Bibles and books in Polish because of the large number of Polish immigrants living there. In CLC bookshops in Eastern and Central European, staff sell quite a few Bibles and books in English—“not because there are immigrants but because many national Christians know English or want to learn it and are happy to find books to help them grow.”
This highlights the ongoing influence England has in the rest of Europe, where many national churches worship in English, Robinson points out. “The resources of the church in England are huge compared to most other European countries, which mostly do look to England for a lead.”
‘Too Much of the Same’
While other parts of Europe are desperate for more Christian resources, Jackson wonders whether there isn’t an overabundance in England—“too much of the same just rehashed, repackaged. We need to find the new voices who have something new to say—something which speaks to a generation who need to know that God can be relevant to them today.”
Despite the challenges, Vohmann and others in parts of Europe where the need may be great but the market is small continue to look for ways to make more Christian resources available. “We’d like to have free Christian resources available and to publish more books for children,” he says.
In the quarter century since his country came out from under Communist oppression, it has seen an increase in occultism and New Age practices, he says. “We don’t know how long we will have this freedom. We would like to do good as long as it’s possible.”
Vohmann was one of the participants at last year’s CBA MarketSquare Budapest, held in his country’s capital. It drew around 30 publishing and ministry representatives from half-dozen Eastern European countries—many of them unable to afford the cost of attending the big book shows in London and Frankfurt.
The event tapped into on ongoing need: the second CBA MarketSquare Budapest Rights Fair is due to be held at the Radisson Blu Beke Hotel in Budapest, April 7-8. For more information, visit: http://cbaonline.org/marketsquare-budapest/.