Europe and the U.S. -
Apples and Oranges?
By Brian Newman
As I exited the train at the Amsterdam South
station I noticed a blind man. I could tell he had not been blind all his life; indeed, I
guessed that he had recently gone blind because he seemed to lack coordination in using
his walking stick. In many ways it was a sad sight and I pitied the man.
I came alongside him and asked if I could
help but he refused. Instead he continued to bump into posts and then a billboard on the
platform. When he got to the staircase he slowed so he could maneuver the 15 or so stairs,
only to fall to the ground at the bottom.
It struck me that this newly-blind man has
similar problems to the Church in Europe at the end of the 20th Century. The man has been
blinded by accident or an unforeseen circumstance of some kind. In many ways the Church in
Europe has become blinded in the past 50 years as the culture around it has changed
radically. The Church has not learned how to use a walking stick so that it knows where it
For most of the past 13 years I have lived,
at various times, in four different countries in Europe, relating to people both churched
and unchurched people. Their stories vary only slightly from Switzerland to France to
Hungary to the Netherlands, the latter in which I have lived for the past four years.
One thing is certain, however - the Church
has been relegated to the sideline in the thoroughly postmodern cultures of Europe. This
article explores some of the dynamics of "doing church" in Europe as well as
offering some reflections on the American Church's movement toward a similar fate to that
of the European Church.
Comparing Historical Apples and Oranges
I must initially confess that I find it
difficult to compare the church scene in Europe with that of America. Much of the reason
for this is because of the radically different histories of the two continents over the
past 50 years. Consider the following:
In 1946 and 1947 the United States saw the
end of the Great Depression. Word War II had lifted the United States' economy and the
U.S. was well on the road to recovery. The countries of Europe, on the other hand, were
ravaged from war. The Germans were defeated foes in desperate need of food, clothing, and
other basics for survival. The countries of Europe were removing the rubble from bombed
buildings, the "Marshall Plan" which would eventually provide massive amounts of
economic aid was being debated.
In the 1950s in the United States the Baby
Boom Generation was literally born. People moved to the suburbs, bought their first cars
and televisions. America prospered. At the same time Europe continued to rebuild. Cities
such as Rotterdam in the Netherlands, which was virtually destroyed in the war, began to
be reconstructed. This was not a renovation or facelift to Europe - it was an economic and
social overhaul that would take more than a decade.
In 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik
which caused the United States to focus for the coming 12 years on the technology to take
a man to the moon. In 1957 European nations first wrestled with the notion of the
"European Economic Community," the forerunner to what is today the European
Comparing Europe and America over the past
50 years is like comparing apples and oranges. Both are fruits, but the similarity end
The "God said it, I believe it, that
settles it" Syndrome
One of the results of the differences in
20th century history is that of generations. In America the Baby Boom generation was born
between 1946 and 1964, during the prosperity years following World War II. Baby Boomers
dominate the political, social, and spiritual landscape in America today. These 78 million
people - fully one-third of the American population - shape the vision, values, and
direction of the country.
In many ways I would argue that the Baby
Boom generation never occurred in Europe, in part because Europe was rebuilding itself
from the war. While it is true that Europe became economically prosperous after a
generation, it was accompanied by deep skepticism and cynicism. Birth rates in Europe did
not soar as they did in America. Indeed some countries in Europe, such as Hungary, are
experiencing a net decrease in their population.
The consequence of all
this has been that the American culture is driven by the Baby Boom worldview, which is
grounded in modernity. Europe skipped a generation, or at least modernity was shortened
and post-modernity emerged. While living in Europe for the past decade I have spoken with,
interacted with, and ministered to people primarily with postmodern mindsets. Regardless
of their age, people in Europe are largely postmodern in orientation. It does not matter
if they are 40 years old or 20 years old, although clearly people have different ways to
express their worldview in the way they dress, the music they listen to.
The Boomer worldview is undergirded by
Enlightenment thinking that the universe can be explained in a rational and logical
manner. In the Christian worldview this has been called "propositional Truth."
Thus, while driving in upstate New York some time ago I read a bumper sticker on a car
which proclaimed, "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it!" In the
modernist worldview that is a completely understandable and commendable statement.
In the Europe of the latter 20th Century
such a statement only begs the questions: "Which god said it?" "If you
believe it why should I believe it?" "Why should anything be settled?"
Europeans write different bumper stickers than Americans!
Reflections on Communicating Jesus in
I do not profess to be an expert about
bridging the gap between modern and postmodern thought, especially in communicating Christ
and the Gospel in this context. Yet I have found some striking themes living in Europe
these years, and I have had the privilege of leading church planters who relate their own
stories of the younger generation of Europeans finding God in a genuine way.
1. Never underestimate the power of your
story. I am part of a preaching team at Crossroads International Church of Amsterdam, a
church of more than 500 people. For the past several years I have preached on a regular
basis at the church. But it was not until recently - when I shared my personal
"story" of coming to faith from a New York Jewish background - that I connected
with many people at the church.
is on the crest of the postmodern wave. Clearly Europe has become post-Christian in many
2. The quality of relationships in your
church will determine its ability to reach postmoderns. If Postmodern Europe is marked by
one thing more than anything else it is alienation. Younger Europeans are alienated from
parents, from friends, from society, and also form God. It is seen and heard on the
streets of Amsterdam, in the pubs and night clubs, on the university campuses. Recently I
studied Dutch at the Free University of Amsterdam. My class had 17 people in it, all of
whom were from Europe except myself. They were exchange students coming to study in
Amsterdam for a year - they came from Norway, Sweden, Italy, Spain, Russia, Germany,
France, Israel, and Finland. They were all, with one exception, "20 something"
age. And they were all alienated and searching - searching for relationship. Their stories
were painful - divorced parents, cohabiting at an early age only to break up, relativity
in relationships with little hope for deep and meaningful friendships.
The Church can be different to the
Postmodern. While they start out skeptical and see the Church as boring and irrelevant,
quality relationships can and do change their minds and hearts. We must model
"realness" in our relationships with God, a genuine seeking after God which is
vulnerable and authentic. It cannot be sanitized and we cannot have all the answers. We
must cultivate a "raw spirituality." Our relationships with each other must
similarly be intimate and genuine. We cannot and must not ignore the "messiness"
of life in general and of relationships in particular. The pain and struggle of life must
be faced and spoken about from the pulpit, in small groups, one-on-one with people. The
Church the only place that younger people in Europe can find long-term and lasting hoping
for the alienation they feel. In an intimate relationship with Jesus, who majored in
relationship and telling his story, Postmoderns can find Life.
3. Postmoderns are going to reach
Postmoderns. I spend a significant portion of my time with younger (under 30 years old)
European Christians. Most of them are emerging leaders with a tremendous amount of
potential to reach their postmodern generation with the gospel. Every once in a while some
of these leaders tell me that I'm "over the hill" at 36 years of age! While on
the one hand they mean this in a joking way, in another way they have a point. Postmodern
thinking, philosophy, and even theology, is radically different than modernist thinking.
If we are to communicate Christ in a relevant way to postmodern Europe we must invest
inordinately in younger emerging Christian leaders who think, feel, and live like the
people they are trying to reach.
I sometimes wonder what the future of Christianity is in Europe.
Has Europe's day passed and are Europeans simply lost and without hope for all eternity?
Clearly Europe is on the crest of the postmodern wave. Clearly Europe has become
post-Christian in many ways. But perhaps the context is ripe for the rebirth of
Christianity - the same 2,000-year-old message communicated in a relevant and
understandable way to Postmodern Europe. Perhaps Europe's best days are still ahead!
Information on the Author:
Brian Newman is European Director for Christian Associates International, a church planting
organization focusing on Western and Eastern Europe. Brian has earned two Master of Arts
degrees from Fuller Theological Seminary, one in Inter-cultural Studies with a
specialization in leadership development and the other in Theology. He and his wife Susy
and their two children have lived in the Netherlands since 1995. Before that they lived in
Hungary for three years and in France for four years
to respond to Brian's article.
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