Stefan Paas is Bavinck Professor of Church Planting and Church Renewal at the Free University Amsterdam, which is where I started work on my PhD back in the 90s.
In an excellent article in Mission Studies called “Mission from Anywhere to Europe: Americans, Africans, and Australians Coming to Amsterdam” (2015) he examines three phases of foreign mission to Europe over recent decades: by American evangelical Protestants, by West African Neo-Pentecostals, and more recently by Australian neo-Pentecostals, which basically means Hillsong. In each case he looks at their perceptions of Europe, their message and method, the responses from Europeans, and the results.
His main conclusion is that this exciting new cultural diversity in mission may not be all it seems. World Christianity “may open unprecedented perspectives of theological interaction, but it may also become a harbinger of increasing religious uniformity as aggressive types of missionary Christianity spread over the world” (21).
Actually, it’s the “issues for discussion” that Paas raises at the end of the essay that are most interesting in my view (23-25).
1. He is struck by the extent to which the expectation of revival is a defining feature of the missionary movements considered. “Time and again the picture is that of a Europe that used to be Christian, and must be restored to its former character or destiny.” He suspects that this assumption that Europeans are nominal Christians whose faith merely needs to be revived “hinders a genuine missionary engagement with secular Europe”.
2. The movements are also characterised by the desire “to transform Europe in its spiritual, moral, political, cultural, and societal dimension”. This is an extension of the revivalist impulse. Paas thinks it is unrealistic and misguided.
The rhetoric of cultural transformation is the language of power, and it raises significant concerns in the host culture. Europeans do not want Christendom back. They may be willing to consider Christianity, but not if it seeks to dominate the entire culture again.
3. Paas is concerned—if I’ve understood him correctly—that these missionary movements underestimate the disconnection between Western European Culture and traditional Christian values. The revivalist instinct fails to understand how social change in the modern era has generated a very different ethic, to the extent that secular people in places like Amsterdam find much Christian moral advice arbitrary. In fact, secular people are likely to feel that they now hold the moral high ground:
they find it very immoral that Christians often do not seem to care about the future of the ecological system, or why they deny equal rights to women and homosexuals (including the right to lead the church, or to have sexual relationships) in a world where women and homosexuals are treated very badly in many countries. They find it hard to understand, for example, why Christians do not put more emphasis on the problems of wealth accumulation, or why they do not have more problems with luxury.
Paas doesn’t go on to consider missional alternatives, but he implicitly makes a strong case here for the sort of low profile, understated, transparent, imaginative, community-based, socially engaged mission (I refuse to use the word “incarnational”) that organisations like Communitas International pursue. I’ve been involved with Communitas—formerly Christian Associates—since we were living in Amsterdam, and I’ve seen how they’ve had to wrestle with the tensions that Paas identifies.
The European landscape is still studded with churches, both literally and metaphorically, and will be for a long time to come. But we should have no illusions about the profound and widening gulf that has opened up between the present and the past. There is no going back. The church has to imagine—both through missional practice and (obviously!) through reflection on the narrated history of God’s people—a radically new future for itself, a radically new way to bear witness to the living God.