Post-Christian No More? - Churches Rethink Europe

by Erik Tryggestad

God and Google led John Adesoye to Christ. The Pentecostal minister, living on the Greek island of Crete, was wavering in his faith when he used the Internet to look for a church resembling the one he'd read about in the Bible.

"My prayer to God at that time was, Lord, is there no more a true church on earth?" Adesoye told the Christian Chronicle "Are they all gone with the first century church?"

He can't remember what he typed into the search engine, but he found the Website of Oregon-based World English Institute, a ministry that teaches English using the Bible.

Several studies later, Adesoye was baptized by Athens minister Dino Roussos.

Adesoye, a native of Nigeria, ministers to a small congregation in Heraklion, the capital of this Mediterranean island.

He keeps World English Institute's staff busy mailing diplomas to students who have completed the Bible courses, said Jan Towell, the ministry's Internet program coordinator.

"We never know where the good soil is, but I believe a true seeker will be led to the truth," Towell said.

Missionaries rarely use phrases such as "good soil" to describe Europe.

In the Western countries, including Ireland, "we have witnessed a marked decline, among the younger generation, in the faith of their parents," said Tony Coffey, a minister in the Irish capital, Dublin.

In the Central and Eastern European countries, after years of communist rule, "the attitude seems to be, for most, We don't want anyone telling us how to live,'" said Tom Bonner, a missionary in Lushnja, Albania. "But people here are looking for something new," he added.

Many Europeans have a renewed interest in spirituality, church members across the continent told the Chronicle. Some congregations-especially in immigrant communities-are growing, and American churches are sending new mission teams.

"Though it is difficult to gauge the level of sincerity, overall there seems to be more interest, new faces, and new opportunities," said Jeff Brauer, a missionary in Padova, Italy.

"I do not know if this is evidence of religious revival," he said. "I hope and pray that it is."

More Interest, If Not Growth

In France, young people are questioning the long-held belief that "the Christian faith, and religion in general, are irrelevant for the modern world," said Yann Opsitch, missions coordinator for Europe at Abilene Christian University in Texas.

Although 80 percent of the French claim to be Catholic, less than 20 percent attend church, according to news reports. But in recent years, evangelical churches have sprung up across the countryside, Christianity Today magazine reported in a recent issue.

"There is definitely 200 percent more interest in spiritual things in France than when I first came to live here some 30 years ago," said Robert Limb, a minister in Paris.

However, in Lyon, France, Missionary Arlin Hendrix said he has seen little evidence of a religious revival among the people he serves.

Religious revival or not, the renewed interest in spiritual matters isn't translating into significant numerical growth for most Churches of Christ, missionaries told the Chronicle.

In Paris, charismatic religious groups seem to be experiencing the most growth, Limb said.

"I think that the divide between feeling-based and Bible-based is much more important today than the difference between Catholic and Protestant," he said. Many religious groups teach Europeans "to believe without examining the evidence" and promise divine healing or financial prosperity. Limb said he's concerned that such beliefs could lead to a renewed disillusionment with Christianity. "We need to tell them that there is another way to understand the Bible," he said.

Most of the growth in Europe's Churches of Christ is happening in immigrant communities. An increasing number of Christians from South America attend churches in Italy, Brauer said. And two congregations in the northern part of the country are composed entirely of people from the West African nation of Ghana.

The largest Church of Christ in the Netherlands also is predominantly Ghanaian.

"We came here for greener pastures-to better our lives," said Prince Manso, one of seven church members who launched the congregation in Amsterdam in 1995. About 120 people attend the church, most of them Ghanaians and most of them baptized in Amsterdam, said Edward Acquah, a Ghanaian who moved from Italy last year to minister for the church.

Real People, Real Needs

The people of Finland are "extremely well-read and highly skeptical of new things," said Stephen Pylkas, minister for the Trenton, Mich., church. But many in the Scandinavian nation "are so alone and hungry for spiritual nurturing."

Pylkas recently led a campaign to Tampere, Finland, where his parents, Arnold and Wanda Pylkas, serve as
missionaries. More full-time workers are needed to help the increasing number of young Finns interested in Christ, Stephen Pylkas said.

"In our colleges and universities, the rush to send missionaries to Africa and other high-percentage response locations has all but occluded the opportunities that are available in Scandinavia and Europe," he said.

But some students who travel to Europe for mission trips or study abroad programs are becoming full-time missionaries. Two teams of young adults recently began church-planting work in the Czech Republic and Vienna, Austria. A third team plans to move to Moscow next year. All three trained with Texas-based Missions Resource Network.

"Receptivity to the gospel in Europe has long been based upon who we are and methods we use-not based on who the Europeans are and needs they readily admit to having," said Phil Jackson, the ministry's facilitator for European church planting.

Europe's history "has provided plenty of disappointment in the institutions and systems that govern life," Jackson said. As a result, European culture "is demanding an explanation, demanding relevancy, authenticity, community" from its churches.

Responding to those demands has been a big part of the groups' training, said Brian Rusher, a member of the Vienna team. An increasing number of missionaries in Europe are seeking to create authentic communities of believers instead of churches that closely resemble those in the U.S., he said.

From the Christian Chronicle, September, 2007

Erik Tryggestad is assistant managing editor for the Chronicle.

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