25 Jul 2023
The Europe Collaboration has chosen significant European cities as its mission field. But why plant churches in the home of Christendom, a continent home to some of the oldest Christian institutions on earth? And aren’t Europe’s cities already teeming with places of worship of every size and shape?
The story of faith in Europe goes back almost two thousand years. Europe was the first continent to encounter the gospel as it moved out of its birthplace in Jerusalem. The apostles began to plant churches in major European cities such as Rome, Philippi and Corinth. Gradually Christianity started to take root and spread throughout the Roman Empire and by the fourth century it had taken over as the official religion. Over the centuries Europe became heavily Christianised, with three huge traditions of Catholicism, Orthodoxy and, later, Protestantism growing out of this era of Christendom.
But what took centuries to build has shrivelled in just a few decades. “It took 500 years to implant Christianity in Europe, and it’s taken 50 years or less to uproot,” commented Anita Cleverly, one of the EC’s team chaplains. Ever since the post-war period, Christianity in Europe has withered in the face of the rapid rise of secularism. Forty years of atheistic communist rule in Eastern Europe battered the church there, while on the other side of the Iron Curtain the church has tended to slide into decline and irrelevance from the sexual and agnostic revolutions in the 1960s and onwards.
Today, Europe is becoming the world’s first post-Christian continent. It has deep cultural roots and heritage in faith, especially in buildings and institutions which find their foundations in Christendom. But active, thriving and growing communities of believers are rarer and rarer. And just as secularism began to replace Christianity as the default worldview in Europe, the church began to discredit itself in the eyes of coming generations. Through abuse scandals, an unhelpful intermingling with the state, and at times theological cul-de-sacs, the European church has sadly become tainted and diminished.
Europe is now some of the world’s hardest ground for mission. It can seem even more difficult to evangelise and disciple Europeans than in truly unreached parts of the world. Here, people have little curiosity about Christianity, which is not new or interesting but seen as dated and irrelevant. The church is often associated with older generations and yesterday’s values and morality.
Despite is reputation as the birthplace of Christendom, church attendance in most European countries is declining fast. Weekly church attendance across all denominations, measured by Pew, is under 15% in most countries and in some such as Russia, Sweden or the UK it is closer to 6-8%. In France, only 6% of those identifying as Christians go to church every Sunday, while in Germany as few as 17% of believers make it to church once a month. Since 2006, weekly church attendance in Italy has plummeted by over a third, while in Poland, attendance at mass is down by 40% since the turn of the millennium.
In a nutshell, despite its Christian history Europe is fast forgetting the faith which built the continent. While it is materially wealthy, it is desperately spiritually poor. In terms of opportunities to hear the gospel proclaimed faithfully, to see Jesus changing lives, or to be invited into a vibrant church family, Europe can be considered a desert.
This is why the EC has chosen Europe as its mission field. There are 700 million people living here in an increasingly spiritually needy continent, and the EC believes the best way to reach them is through thriving local churches where the gospel can be seen in and through the life of the congregation. But Europe also poses a significant challenge to the world. As other places begin to drift towards a European-style secularism, the global church urgently needs to discover how to plant successful churches in this new landscape, argues Matthew Key, the EC’s project director. “This is a particular cultural and historical time that the world has never seen, where the majority of people in Europe have no particular faith or belief in God. And in the history of mission of the church that’s completely, radically new. So I think there is a real historical urgency for mission in Europe, in a way that we need to really wake up to.” The lessons learned from cultivating communities of believers in the increasingly arid soil of Europe will be vital for the rest of the world throughout the rest of this century and beyond.
Alongside the obvious need for the gospel, Europe is also a fantastically strategic place for mission. Because of its sad spiritual history in recent years, there is plenty of space for new churches and the EC almost always encounters encouragement and welcome rather than hostility or competition from those already faithfully and bravely ministering in Europe’s cities. Europe is also deeply interconnected, allowing churches to be planted collaboratively and planters to draw on familiar resources and pan-continental encouragement not possible in other parts of the world.
The EC also believes the greatest need for churches in Europe is in the continent’s city centres. Partly, this is simply about going where people are – about 72% of the population of the EU already live in urban areas and this is expected to hit 90% by 2100. But cities are not just where lots of people happen to live, they are also brilliant places to begin new worshipping communities. Cities are hubs for the creators and disseminators of culture and ideas. Almost all of Europe’s art, music, fashion, media, and literature is born in a city somewhere. If we want to begin to call Europe back to the Christian story which it has forgotten, we need thriving churches which can begin to influence this culture and retell the story afresh. Europe’s historic cities – with their connections to universities, businesses, transport links and the charity sector – abound with well-educated, thoughtful, creative and passionate people. “It is in Europe’s cultural centres, with young people and students, where there are people who will change the thinking of a society in flux,” said Charlie Cleverly, a team chaplain for the EC.
But cities have always been places where the elite rub shoulders with the marginalised. They are where the refugee, the migrant, the homeless person, the minority comes. The city centre is perhaps the only place where a church can be simultaneously influential and focused on those on the edges of society. Cities are where churches can truly embody Christ’s call to love the least, the last and the lost.
The EC prays that the churches it helps plant in Europe’s cities will become exemplar, flagship, resourcing churches. Not focused on building their brand or empire, but acting as minster churches once did in Europe’s Christian past – serving and inspiring an ever-widening circle of churches. They will act as a visible sign that renewal is beginning in Europe and a model for others to follow.
This is, in fact, how the church has always grown. Paul and his fellow apostles in the first century headed straight to the major urban centres of his day: Rome, Athens, Philippi, Antioch. They wanted to spread the revolutionary and exciting message of Jesus of Nazareth across the Greco-Roman world and to do that they needed churches in cities. Just two centuries later, more than half of the urban population of the Roman Empire had converted.
God has always had a heart for cities. Indeed, the city is a physical expression of his great command on humanity: to cultivate, subdue, multiply, and create beauty and order from the raw materials of his creation. That is why the Biblical narrative moves from a garden in Genesis to a city in Revelation.
Consider what London or New York or Seoul would be without their dozens of large, vibrant, fruitful and faithful churches. Yet Europe is full of cities, culturally significant and economically thriving, which have barely any comparable growing church communities. If this great continent is going to be re-evangelised out of its post-Christendom slumber, then it will begin by planting churches in the heart of its great cities.
Tim Wyatt is a freelance journalist specialising in features and analysis on religion and social affairs.