The Dark Continent
This week, as the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) meets in Rio de Janeiro, I can’t help but be reminded of the need for missionaries worldwide, but especially in today’s “Spiritual Dark Continent,” the continent of Europe. Denton Lotz, Secretary General of the BWA, is one man who is aware of the needs in post-Christian Europe.
In his seminal essay entitled, “Implications of the Paradigm Shifts in Mission for a New Understanding of the Challenge of Mission for Baptists in the 21st Century” (posted at the BWA website), Lotz describes the dire need for evangelization in the countries of the world, including the European nations. Citing an essay by Peter Hünermann, the Catholic Professor of Dogmatics at Tübingen University in Germany, Lotz notes that the Christian church in Europe is in a process of dissolution, and that the current crisis of the European church is linked to the crisis of the confrontation of European society by modernity, in which the basic characteristics of society are in discontinuity with the institutional structure of the church. For example, Lotz reports that although 45 million of the 57 million French are baptized Catholics, 47% of the French population consider themselves either a-religious or atheistic. In Germany, 70% of East Germans are without any religion whatsoever. In cities such as Berlin and Frankfurt, 20 to 30% of school age children are Muslims, numbering 3.3 million in the whole of Germany.
Lotz also notes that in Britain, the home of the modern missionary movement , the figures are astonishingly similar. It is estimated that out of a total population of 50 million people only around 900,000 attend an Anglican Church on any given Sunday morning. Recently British Cardinal O’Connor caused a flap when he stated that the influence of Christianity in Britain has “almost been vanquished.” One scholar has even gone so far as to quip that “The religion of the English is that there is no God, and it is wise to pray to him from time to time.”
According to reports by Greater Europe Mission, an agency with which my wife and I had the privilege of working in Germany in the late-70s, evangelical Christians comprise less than 1% of the population in 15 of the 29 countries where GEM is involved in ministry. The churches in Africa and Asia—continents traditionally associated with foreign missionaries—are growing rapidly while Europe is the only continent where the church is declining. Again, take France as an example, a country with a long and rich history. Even the Catholic Church sees membership and attendance dropping as the French population has adopted an attitude that views Christianity as “weak.” Less than 12% of the population attends church regularly. When you compare that to Kenya, where regular church attendance is 89%, it becomes clear that post-Christian Europe needs missionaries at least as much as Africa.
Europe has historically been a leader in foreign missions. The modern missionary movement began in Europe. For centuries thousands of missionaries have been sent out from Western Europe to the mission fields of the world. The earliest post-Reformation missionaries were Europeans. Taking the Gospel to the lost is a rich part of European Christian heritage. Today, thousands of European missionaries serve faithfully in over 200 countries of the world. The European church was largely instrumental in introducing modernization in Africa. David Livingstone’s ambition for Central Africa was “Commerce, Civilization, and Christianity.” These three “Cs” were to be achieved primarily through the medium of education, which often took place in the mission stations. They proved to be the first point of contact between African people and Western civilization and its espousal of modernity. The majority of black Africans who received primary education before 1945 did so in mission schools run by missionaries.
Now it seems that we have come full circle. In the UK today there are 1500 missionaries from 50 countries. The largest Baptist Church in Britain is an African Baptist Church in London made up mainly of Ghanaians and Nigerians! More and more sending agencies from North America are targeting Europe as a viable and legitimate mission field.
William Carey, the Baptist shoemaker who is considered the father of modern missions, once asked, “Where are the Baptists?” Denton Lotz believes he has the answer:
Have we become so self-satisfied with some success that we have failed to see where the Spirit is leading us into the future? Have our national churches, both at home and abroad, become so used to the status quo, so satisfied with playing church, that the Spirit has left us? I do not believe so! I believe our Baptist people are ready for new servant leadership, for a new in-breaking of the Holy Spirit, for another opportunity to serve Christ wherever he is leading us! May God grant us the courage to move outside of the confining boxes of our comfortable thoughts and cultural prejudices to the new thing that God is doing in the world!
May that be the desire of believers worldwide!
July 7, 2003
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.