6 Sept 2023
Europe is often described as the world’s first post-Christian continent. Here, three church planters in Europe reflect on their approach to reaching secular Europeans, and the possible lessons this might provide for the rest of the globe.
In what was the cradle of Christendom, a tidal wave of secularisation has swept through Europe from the post-war era onwards. Church attendance and belief in the gospel has collapsed from generation to generation. And yet Europe remains profoundly marked and shaped by its nearly two millennia of Christianity. This presents a unique challenge to church planters since, for the first time in church history, the church must reach Europeans who, whilst culturally and historically inextricably tied to Christianity, have rejected the faith.
The church planters supported by the Europe Collaboration are pioneers. They are testing out in real time what works and what does not when it comes to sharing the gospel in a post-Christian context. And the lessons they are learning can be relevant to ministry across the globe. While the trends in secularisation are complex and contested, it seems probable that other regions will go – and may already have started – down the same journey Europe has in leaving behind Christianity.
So, who are the post-Christians European church planters are trying to reach? In many cases, they might actually be described as second-generation secularists. The baby boomers who came of age in the 1960s were the first cohort to actively reject the Christian presumptions of their parents. And so the Gen X, Millennial and Gen Z urbanites EC church plants serve are a further step removed. They tend not to have the same hang-ups or negative childhood experiences of Christianity their parents might have had. Tim Vreugdenhil, who leads CityKerk in Amsterdam, joked that many of the young adults he works with horrify their parents when they discover they are in touch with a pastor. Unlike their baby boomer parents, however, “the children are open-minded because church doesn't mean anything to them”, he said.
They are often so thoroughly secularised, that Christianity is only a vague cultural echo – something encountered through TV or their grandparents, but not a living thing. They have largely never been inside a church building, except perhaps for occasional public festivals such as Christmas. This means their knowledge of Christian doctrine is almost zero, explained Emmanuel Tsoutsas, the pastor of a church plant in the Pangrati neighbourhood of Athens. “When it comes to the Gospel itself, you are starting brand new. They have no presuppositions, no understanding of anything.” This may sound daunting, but in many ways actually presents opportunities for evangelism. Christianity is now so distant and unknown it has started to become fresh and intriguing again, rather than simply stale and old-fashioned.
This process is uneven across the continent, however. In much of northern and Protestant Europe, secularisation has gone deeper, leading to an almost complete ignorance of Christianity among the young. But in other parts, particularly southern and Catholic Europe, a nominal faith persists to some extent, said Rene Breuel, who leads Hopera, a church plant in the university district of Rome. Many of the young Italians he meets would probably call themselves Christians even if they have never gone to church and don’t believe in God. Here the post-Christian nature of Europe comes through strongly, as Christian identity gets messily mixed up with national and cultural identities. Romans in their 20s and 30s are broadly familiar with some basic concepts such as the Trinity or Jesus as the son of God, Breuel said. They do, however, hold negative connotations about the church, largely because of perceived abuses of power and wealth. Likewise, Athenians are often intrigued by Jesus but repelled by the church, Tsoutsas explained, as the Greek Orthodox Church is seen as politically corrupt and mired in scandal. In countries with well-established national churches such as Greece and Italy, it can be hard for evangelical church plants to gain a hearing, as people have no concept of a non-Catholic or non-Orthodox church.
And yet despite these complex cultural challenges, there are huge opportunities among Europe’s secularised young. Vreugdenhil said he often returned to a concept popularised by the sociologist Max Weber: “poverty of heart and spirit”. In a continent where most are well-educated, affluent and successful there remains a nagging hunger for the transcendental and spiritual, he argued. Contrary to the predictions of secularists in the 20th century, post-Christian Europeans still yearn for something beyond their comfortable material lives, demonstrated in the booming interest in quasi-spiritual yoga classes or meditation apps. Breuel added to this the idea of “emergent adulthood” – the ultra-transient stage between finishing formal education aged 21 and settling down into a permanent home, family and career in your later 30s. Young, secular Europeans feel cut adrift, socially and spiritually, unable to put down roots in their hyper-individualised societies and desperate for community without any idea of how to find it.
It is in this context that the key insight of post-Christian church planting takes root. It’s not about programmes, but relationships. All three pastors agreed that it was by bringing rootless and insecure secular city-dwellers into a community that they could be introduced to a faith which would previously seem bizarrely irrelevant in the 21st century. “Our approach in presenting the gospel to people tries to offer a sense of belonging as much as believing,” Breuel said. Not just a list of doctrines to subscribe to, but first a community of people who already believe. In Athens, Tsoutsas’s church regularly holds a wide range of social events, from jazz concerts to art workshops to board game nights, which have no evangelistic agenda. “We connect with the neighbourhood on a neutral level, and we build relationships,” he said. The aim was to spend enough time alongside non-Christian friends that they could not help but start to ask questions about why Christians live the way they do. “If you go straight to them answering questions that have not been asked yet, you'll be met with a closed door. So we want to build relationships and build connections with people to the point that they'll ask us ‘Emmanuel, why on Earth are you guys this way?’” Breuel said his approach in Rome was much the same, with a steady pipeline of casual events it was easy to invite non-believing friends to. Then, someone who has become close to church members might be introduced to a social justice project led by the church or something else which aligns with their values and interests. Then they could be invited to an informal discussion group exploring faith, and later to actual Sunday services. Tsoutsas said it was a challenge to tread the fine middle line in intentional gospel friendships. Too often Christians would either only befriend others to convert them (swiftly abandoning the relationship if no faith emerged), or at the other end of the spectrum be so hands-off that non-believing friends never heard anything about Jesus or the church.
This highlights another vital aspect of ministry to post-Christian, secularised Europeans: authenticity. Breuel noted there was nothing to be gained by trying to trick people into coming to evangelistic events – either let something be genuinely non-spiritual or be clear that it would involve Christian elements. Vreugdenhil agreed, adding that it was vital for pastors to demonstrate authenticity in their own ministry too, allowing vulnerabilities to be revealed in preaching and pastoring. “Everything which is inauthentic doesn’t work.” This was a strong contrast with the Christendom model he was trained in at college, which had warned that doubt was dangerous and ministers must “stand firm on the truth”.
In Amsterdam, he had found instead that trying to hustle people along a journey into faith or hector them to adopt Christianity wholesale was pointless. Quoting Tim Keller, the pastor recalled that “postmodern people take their decisions in a thousand little steps”. So he had learned to give those he was working with plenty of time and space to meander into full church fellowship. Breuel said in Rome they had realised they needed to take their time with discipleship, as young post-Christian Italians needed longer to let Christian truth sink in and begin to transform them. Breaking the gospel down into bitesize chunks rather than attempting to present the entire Christian story in one go had also proven successful, Vreugdenhil added. Similarly, he said it was vital to be humble and open to secularism and other competing worldviews as serious intellectual propositions, rather than scornfully dismissing them.
In Athens, Tsoutsas echoed Vreugdenhil’s approach in offering “glimpses” of the gospel in everyday interactions. He said he sought in his teaching to address the concerns of non-Christians listening, building a bridge from the Bible to their own intellectual and cultural world. Vreugdenhil said he would even echo the language commonly used by secular Amsterdammers when they groped towards spiritual ideas, for instance speaking about “energy” in reference to the Holy Spirit. With dashes of humour and irony, he was able to subvert preconceptions about staid pastors and instead break down the walls between his audience’s worldview and that of the church, much as Paul did in Athens 2,000 years earlier. The challenge came in then finding creative ways to move the conversation on from the confused post-Christian melange secular Europeans bring with them, Breuel said. Many Italians he ministered to loved the idea of grace and forgiveness; a warm, humane and compassionate church which accepted them as they were. In a context where God seemed far away and solely mediated by a stale institution, the direct relationship offered by evangelical churches was appealing. But it had proven difficult to take these proto-believers on into mature discipleship; it was no coincidence the primary Christian iconography in Italy is of a baby Jesus sitting in Mary’s lap rather than adult disciples following an adult Christ.
But alongside these signs of progress and models which are working, was a lengthy list of ministry methods which have had to be junked. Church planters in European countries which have a single dominant established church have to drop anything which might smack of being a sect or cult. Both Tsoutsas and Breuel explained that non-Catholic/Orthodox churches were constantly mistaken for Jehovah’s Witnesses or the like, and so never gave out flyers or tracts in the street or did door-to-door cold evangelism. Instead, a sophisticated balance needed to be struck – church planters cannot copy the established church, but neither could they define themselves in opposition to it. Breuel said one expression of this was how his church now did the Eucharist every week. This was alien to his low church tradition but helped reassure culturally Catholic visitors used to the mass that his services were legitimately Christian. Finally, in an individualistic and secularised continent, mass approaches such as street marches, stadium events, large-scale conferences or TV broadcasting mostly missed the mark. Instead, successful church plants position themselves as grassroots and humble participants in the life of a city. Collaborating in dialogue or social action with other faith groups helped in knocking down the presumption of Christian arrogance and exclusivity, which still pervades.
The work is slow and steady, but ministry in this most secularised of continents is happening. In Amsterdam, 600 people (mostly strangers) had signed up to receive intriguing podcast snippets of preaching from Vreugdenhil via WhatsApp last Easter. Hopera in Rome had seen 80 adult baptisms of new believers since launching about a decade ago. Tsoutsas said three or four new non-Christians visited his church every week simply because of their community engagement. “God is already working, and there is a harvest,” he said. “And he's calling us to co-labour with him, to collect these people and guide them home, guide them into the church.” Their message to other planters facing a similar post-Christian context was this: put aside fear about the supposedly inevitable victory of secularism over faith, and get stuck in.
Throughout the 20th century, European intellectuals prophesied religion would soon wither away, Vreugdenhil recalled. And this failed prophecy should give hope to every believer anywhere on Earth, he added. “Even in the heartland of secularism, new generations are so sensitive to poverty of heart and spirit you can almost defend the other thesis – that it is impossible to live without a form of spirituality.” Growth in this post-Christian context is rarely explosive and nor is it easily replicated in some cookie-cutter formula. But for churches prepared to put in the work to build meaningful community, share glimpses of the gospel in how they live and speak, and be patient in nurturing insecure, lonely 30-somethings into faith, there is much fruit to be had.