Two Swallows

Posted May 16, 2019 by europeanmission
Categories: Uncategorized


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Two swallows don’t make a summer, says the proverb. Yet two recent Dutch books about reflection on roots could perhaps signal a significant climate change in Europe concerning interest in the Bible and Christianity.

One is written by Inez van Oord, the publisher of Happinez, a very successful New Age glossy magazine offering happiness through a range of eastern spiritualities. In her book Rebible (2017), she surprised her readers by saying that ‘in recent years we have embraced Buddha like a teddy bear, read spiritual gurus and visited ashrams and monasteries in India, and eventually you ask yourself: what are my roots, where do I come from? That is actually Christianity. We have been born on Christian ground. I have let the years go by, but I found the time ripe to explore Christian spirituality. The nice thing is: we can do that again. It’s okay to talk about Moses. You want to know who you are. Who knows? Perhaps it’s more familiar to return to Christianity. That has rooted my youth, that’s where I came from. So the question is: what can I do with it?’

Our true identity needs to be found in our roots, says van Oord. Which doesn’t mean returning to the stultifying legalism of yesterday’s church, she argues, but rather drawing fresh inspiration from the ancient wells of scripture. Inez (hence the title ‘Happinez’) took a journey of personal discovery through the Sinai wilderness with her theologian brother in pursuit of such inspiration. Rebible was the result.

Van Oord’s ability to ‘feel trends’ earlier than most enabled her to start several publications widely resonating with readers. If she is right in her intuition, we may well be entering a season where the spiritual emptiness of our secular age will prompt more to reflect on their spiritual roots.

That this new sound comes from a leading spokesperson for the New Age movement is surprising enough. But a second and more broad-ranging book published recently comes from a former editor of a national left-wing newspaper who now believes Dutch society threw the baby out with the bathwater some four or five decades ago.

OngelofelijkIn her book Ongelofelijk (‘Unbelievable’, 2018), Yvonne Zonderop describes her sense of liberation as a young woman after leaving the Catholic church in disgust, along with other members of her generation. During the sixties and seventies, faith disappeared behind the front door, she writes. Secular became the norm. Freedom, individualism and autonomy became the celebrated values.

Yet, Zonderop now realises, this personal liberation has had great social consequences. Something important has been lost. Her generation has raised a whole new generation without Christian roots, which for centuries had nurtured and formed western culture and morality. A common foundation for society has been eroded. Who knows what the Exodus meant? she asks. Who can explain the biblical scenarios Rembrandt painted? And who realises that without Christianity we most probably would not have a democratic constitutional state?

After decades, Zonderop has come to see that her generation had robbed themselves of the cultural context in which they had grown up. Yet now it is becoming obvious that the alternatives to religion for offering meaning and values are scarce. Millions of Dutch people continue to waver between faith and unbelief. In politics, the Christian heritage keeps resurfacing, she observes, because it is the source of our culture, democracy and ethics.

She quotes a doctoral candidate from the University of Amsterdam who researched individualisation as the motto for Dutch education after World War Two. Observing that baby boomers valued individuality, he concluded: ‘but, woe to you if you did not wear jeans or did not criticise religion!’

Which recalls for Zonderop a comic scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian film in which the Messiah figure tells his crowd of followers that they are all individuals, they are all different; to which the crowd responds by chanting in unison: ‘Yes, we’re all different!’ Then a lone voice pipes up: ‘I’m not.’

Zonderop now views the ideal of individual freedom as having held Dutch society in a strong grip, of which the collective departure from the church is just one example. But freedom has now become a devil’s dilemma: when you make a mistake, you’re on your own. Today’s youth, she argues, seek the support circle of friends to fall back on. Social capital is more important to them than individual freedom. Religion can become a source of meaning for them again.

The loss of togetherness is more broadly felt in society these days, writes Zonderop. People miss the social cohesion formerly offered by trade unions and churches. They miss the ‘vertical dimension’, where someone higher than you is looking after your welfare, whether that be a group leader or God.

The book’s subtitle, “About the surprising comeback of religion,” refers to the closing chapters which describe a number of new expressions of church in the Netherlands, and particularly Amsterdam, today. A wave of pioneers is appearing, both within and outside the church, showing rumours of the death of Christianity to have been greatly exaggerated. Zonderop ends her book with a surprising citation from a Muslim German-Iranian art critic connecting the loss of the spiritual dimension with the rise of populism.

Jeg modte JesusIn his intriguing book, Wonder Beyond Belief: On Christianity (2017), Navid Kermani observes: “It is completely understandable that many Europeans are afraid for Islam and seek security in the familiar. If you no longer know your own culture, you can’t be open to other cultures. It is a great shortcoming if you don’t know what Pentecost is. German literature of the 19th century can’t be understood if you don’t see the Christian allusions. Many writers of that time were ministers’ sons. German literature and music are saturated with Biblical references. If we don’t know that legacy, we don’t know ourselves. And then we become susceptible for racism, xenophobia and nationalism.”

Another secular journalist, Charlotte Rørth from Denmark, recently wrote about a totally surprising encounter she had in a Spanish church. In I met Jesus (2017), she described herself as a complete outsider to the church: “For us, the basis of everything is that one asks questions, looks for proof, finds answers, continues learning as time goes on. But suddenly I know something that I did not yet know half an hour before and which I cannot prove.”

Till then she had only known about Jesus from a distance. Now she saw him so clearly in front of her – surrounded by his disciples – that for her there was no more doubt: “He was simply there, and he is alive! And He loves me so much that I have no choice but simply to love others too.” When she came out of the church, others asked her: “Why are you surrounded by such a light? You are really shining!”

Her book, which quickly reached the bestseller lists, has been hailed in Denmark’s secular press as breaking the taboo on speaking about religion and spiritual experiences, a significant step forward for freedom of speech in a very secular country.

This is perhaps what philosopher Charles Taylor predicted in A Secular Age: “We are just at the beginning of a new age of religious searching, whose outcome no-one can foresee.”

Jeff Fountain

Narrating the Gospel: The relevance of Charles Taylor’s ‘A Secular Age’ for mission in Europe

Posted May 5, 2019 by europeanmission
Categories: Uncategorized

A secular age

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Hard news was obviously in short supply on Friday December 28th, 2018. Hence, The Times ran a feature about a YouGov survey of 1,660 people in the UK. The findings suggested that there are more people attending church (albeit less frequently), a reduction in the number of professed atheists, an increase in the number of agnostics, and an increase in the numbers of those who say they pray occasionally.

This single survey is hardly a game-changer, but it does seem to confirm what other surveys of the last five years suggest: that it’s time for a review of the way that many Christians in Europe have become conditioned to thinking about faith across the continent. Most of us tend to see the history of Christianity in Europe in two main periods. During the first period from around the 4th to the 18th century, Christianity provided the framework for understanding morality, faith, social order, God, and just about the whole of life. After the Enlightenment of the 18th century, science and reason overthrew religious credibility and authority and the slow, steady demise of Christendom set in. If life in the earlier period was lived under a sacred canopy, in the latter it was lived from a secular launchpad.

For academics who retained an interest in studying European Christianity, a debate raged about how best to support this version of events with the best statistical data available. Callum Brown provoked attention (and sales) with his book The Death of Christian Britain (2001, 2009). Grace Davie puzzled, at a late stage of her thinking, over Religion in Britain: A Persistent Paradox (2015). Some argued that modernity was necessarily and inevitably secular. Others described national Churches dealing in things of ‘ultimacy’ and ‘transcendence’ on behalf of their respective nations. The debate was lively and fascinating.

In the middle of these debates, I was trying to advise Baptist churches in the UK about the nature of their mission task through into the early 2000s. It was challenging. Many church pundits and commentators were convinced that secularism had triumphed, the churches were in terminal decline, and that the churches of Europe should either oppose science and reason to their dying breath, or that they should strike an uneasy truce with secularisation.
Twelve years ago, Charles Taylor took around 800 pages with A Secular Age (2007) to tell a different story. Taylor was a Catholic, Canadian philosopher with a huge reputation. In 800 pages he says a lot of things that deserve much more space than we have available in this short article. However, it’s worth trying a short summary.

Here we go! Taylor suggests there are three ways to understand how ‘secular’ is used. Firstly, prior to the fifteenth-century Protestant Reformation, ‘secular’ was used to describe all the non-sacred things that religious people did. Eating, washing, travelling, and trading, for example, were all ‘secular’ activities, pursued by religious people with a sense of the transcendent presence of God, or the divine. Secondly, following the Reformation (‘The Reformation is central to the story I want to tell’, A Secular Age, p.77), and fuelled by the European Enlightenment, ‘secular’ became a way of describing the non-religious.

You were either religious or secular, being both was no longer possible. People could now choose to live their lives without the approval of a transcendent being. Instead, they could live mostly self-validating lives with reference only to immanent realities such as human reason, the nation-state, science, etc., and in some cases developed extreme hostilities to religion.

Taylor argues that European Christians have largely accepted this second understanding. As a result, we have typically tried to live out our Christian witness by picking a fight with human reason and science. The problem with this, if Taylor is correct, is that our arguments then rest on the same assumptions that reason and science rest upon. Simply put, we often resort to logic, historicity, and empirical defences of our faith. These are arguments based in the appeal to immanence.

Taylor argues for a third way of understanding ‘secular’: that religious and non-religious people alike are secular because we inhabit an era in which faith, atheism, and humanism are all available as options. More than this, they are options that do not have to be watertight categories. Taylor notes that there have always been people who, ‘want to respect as much as they can the ‘scientific’ shape of the immanent order… but who cannot help believing that there is something more than the merely immanent…’ (p.548).

For Taylor, the loss of transcendence in a secular age is disastrous for human beings. Elsewhere, his work on ‘social imaginaries’ is his personal effort to re-engage human beings with story, mystery, the poetic, the numinous, and the imagination. European Christians who refuse to deal with the miraculous, the presence of angels, the inspirational lives of saints (they don’t have to be Roman Catholic saints!), the real presence of God in the everyday, the possibility of sacred spaces, the necessity of resurrection, the reality of evil with personality and intelligence, and the life everlasting, among many others, have simply lost sight of the missional power of these elements of our Christian story.

Taylor would encourage us to refer to all these, often, and to tell stories that inspire and stimulate imaginative leaps (slowly shuffling forward might also be OK) that enlarge the possibility of faith for those willing to listen. He talks of ‘the power and genuineness of the experience of wonder’ (p.607), for example. A growing number of evangelicals see that Taylor’s insights encourage an approach whereby apologetics that rely on story and narrative are more persuasive, and convincing, than apologetics that rely on argumentation and empirical data alone.

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is not an easy read. It’s big, for one. However, he writes in such a rich and compelling way that it’s easy to miss the fact that he’s actually telling us a very sophisticated story. He also quotes poetry at length (see pp.761-765, for example). That’s all deliberate, because he’s trying to persuade and inspire the imagination of his readers in a way that he argues is necessary in our secular age.

Reading Taylor is also an immensely hope-filled and optimistic exercise. Reviewing him for The New York Sun, Michael Burleigh captures this well: ‘A salutary and sophisticated defence of how life was lived before the daring views of a tiny secular elite inspired mass indifference…’ Taylor offers the intriguing prospect that we may yet see a return to an “Age of the Spirit.”

Taylor frequently talks of the shared human ‘aspiration to wholeness and transcendence’ (pp.262-627). As a Roman Catholic, Taylor would not be embarrassed by Christians engaged in thoughtful and genuine efforts to re-enchant Europe by planting many and varied seeds of transcendence. Such language might seem a long way from what many of us understand when we use phrases such as ‘proclaiming the gospel’. Taylor wouldn’t distance himself from this, but his work does challenge us to reconsider whether our understanding and proclaiming of the gospel has lost all sense of enchantment and transcendence, and is instead too much reminiscent of a verbal ‘fist-fight’.

If we were, instead, to re-learn the art of narrating the gospel in a way that captures its weird, miraculous, other-worldly, subversive, and transformative intent, it is still possible that Christ’s followers in Europe will live to feel that they have contributed, in some way, to a future ‘Age of the Spirit’.

Darrell Jackson is Associate Professor of Missiology, Morling College.

Debunking Secular Europe?

Posted January 29, 2019 by europeanmission
Categories: Uncategorized

secularThis issue of Vista returns to the recurring themes of secularisation, secularity and secularism. Taking different approaches and starting points, our authors ask what it means to be secular in Europe today, how societies can be both secular and religious, and whether there are signs that secularisation is slowing or even reversing.
In our lead article, Evert Van de Poll strongly challenges the conventional secularisation thesis and introduces his own neologism: the SMR Society – which is secularised (or secularising) yet simultaneously multi-religious.

Recent years have seen some ground-breaking works exploring religion and secularity in Europe. Darrell Jackson looks back at Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, 12 years after its publication, and assesses its impact and relevance today. And in our book review section, Jim Memory reviews two books that have tried, with partial success, to make Taylor’s work more widely accessible.
Jo Appleton looks at secularism and religiosity from a different perspective, asking how Europe’s growing Muslim population affects the debate. In a similar vein, Jim Memory offers a demographic perspective on European secularisation, using population and migration statistics to identify future trends, outlining key missiological implications.

This issue is completed by Jeff  Fountain’s article introducing some recent popular books that  suggest religion and spirituality  continue to resonate with  Europeans today.

Chris Ducker, Jim Memory, Darrell Jackson, Evert van de Poll, Jo Appleton

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Mission on the margins: reaching the LGBT community

Posted December 27, 2018 by europeanmission
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The June 2018 issue of Vista focused on a number of areas where mission takes place on the edges of society.  Examples included the Roma, girls in the sex industry, the LGBT community, asylum seekers  and a reflection on mission from the margins in Kosovo.

As editors we recognised that some of the margins explored by the writers in this issue of Vista may step beyond what our readers are comfortable with, both missiologically and theologically.

Following publication,   Matt George, Director of ECM NZ and Australia contacted us regarding the article ‘Lets talk about LGBT inclusion’ by Danielle Wilson and the editors invited a response from him. Both articles are linked below for your consideration and reflection.

Vista 30 – lets talk about LGBT inclusion

Vista 30 – a response

Read the full issue here

Not my kind of Christian: a response to the Pew Research Center’s 2018 report, Being Christian in Europe

Posted December 17, 2018 by europeanmission
Categories: Uncategorized

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Beliefs and behaviours in Western Europe are rarely researched beyond the national level. To address this knowledge gap, Pew Research conducted 24,599 telephone interviews in 15 countries between April and August 2017. Additionally, 12,000 ‘religiously unaffiliated’ individuals (atheists, agnostics, and people with ‘no particular view’ – or ‘nones’) were interviewed and their attitudes and practices also recorded. A comprehensive 156-page report was published in May 2018.

The report introduces several new indices that measure New Age engagement, religious commitment, and attitudes regarding nationality, immigration, and religious minorities (indices that echo Vista’s ‘Nova Index of Secularisation in Europe’, or NISE, featured in our October 2010 edition).

In describing Western Europeans, Pew’s researchers distinguish between several population categories: the baseline ‘Western Europeans’ (or WEs), the ‘religiously non-affiliated’ (or ‘nones’), non-practising or non-attending Christians, church-attending Christians (or the ‘religiously observant’), and the religiously committed. It’s important in reading the report to make sure that these categories are understood correctly. At times they appear to be used interchangeably or in ways that do not make the distinctions very clear. With this minor caution noted, it’s time to dip into the riches of the report.

What’s known about the prevailing beliefs of Western Europeans?
According to the report, 71 percent of WEs identify as Christian, though only 16 percent attend church at least monthly. Christian identity remains a meaningful marker for the individual – even where it might not mean what an evangelical missionary means by it. The report demonstrates that WEs are predominantly ‘non-practising Christians’ with 80 percent saying they know about Christianity and its practices, a clear contrast with the two out of every three WEs who profess ignorance of Islam and Judaism.

Belief in God is claimed by 58 percent of WEs, although only 15 percent claim to do with absolute certainty and only 15 percent believe in a biblical God. Half of these, or 29 percent of WEs, understand God as primarily ‘all-loving’. Notions of God as judge, all-knowing, or all-powerful, are far less commonly held by WEs. However, two-thirds of WEs believe they have a soul and 40 percent believe in an afterlife.

Just over one in ten Europeans describes themselves as ‘spiritual’, although a quarter claim to be both religious and spiritual (among whom are doubtless many of the church-attending Christians). Of those who self-identify as spiritual, two-thirds believe in a higher power or force. Only 12 percent of these believe in God as described in the Bible. However, they are more likely to engage in New Age, Eastern, or folk religions, fear the ‘evil eye’, practise yoga as a spiritual practice, and believe in reincarnation, horoscopes, tarot cards, and the abilities of fortune tellers.

Whilst only 8 percent of WEs try to persuade other people to adopt their religious views, a more significant 24 percent give money to their church. This reflects their generally positive assessment of the role of religious institutions in society: helping the poor and needy, bringing people together, strengthening community, and, for some, strengthening morality in society.

What do we know about the religiously unaffiliated (the ‘nones’)?
The ‘nones’ are typically younger, more highly educated, and disproportionately male. Two thirds of them say they were baptised and raised as Christians, gradually drifting away for various reasons, including the church’s negative stance towards homosexuality, abortion, or scandals within the church. Consequently, very few of them ever attend a religious service. It is this population group that is of interest to scholars of nominal belief and practice in Europe, who are likely to describe this group using the alternative definition of ‘nominal’.

Intriguingly, just under one third of the ‘nones’ say they believe in ‘a higher power’. This slice of the atheist/agnostic pie interested the Pew researchers, who labelled them ‘religiously unaffiliated believers’. They are highly likely to believe that they have a soul and less likely than other ‘nones’ to express anti-religious attitudes. They are also more likely than Christians to engage in alternative New Age or other spiritual practices.

‘Nones’ are much more likely to be found in Protestant countries than in Catholic countries and being raised as a ‘none’ makes it highly likely that one will die a ‘none’. Encouragingly, some people raised as ‘nones’ do embrace religious identity and/or practice later in life. Across Europe, 17 percent of the former ‘nones’ have embraced some form of religious affiliation (identity, non-attending, or attending and believing).
Identifying non-practising (or ‘non-attending’) Christians?

For this report, Pew researchers defined the category of ‘non-practising Christian’ by identifying individuals who no longer attend church services (‘non-practising’) but who retain religious beliefs that were sufficiently orthodox to be described as ‘Christian’. Across Europe, non-practising Christians outnumber the ‘nones’ although a majority say they are neither religious nor spiritual! They tend to believe in God (or a higher power), to be more positively inclined towards religious institutions, and favour legal abortion and same-sex marriage. A majority say they are raising their children as Christians but insist that religion should be kept out of government policy.

The non-practising Christian is described by Pew researchers with reference to religious belief, views about the place of religion in society, and views about national identity, immigration, and religious minorities. (Vista’s editors note with some measure of satisfaction, that these are themes that Vista has constantly kept in view from the first edition).

When can a Western European be considered a Church-attending Christian?
Perhaps frustratingly for an evangelical mission or church leader, church-attending Christians are predominantly to be found in the traditionally Roman Catholic countries of WE. Moreover, on the Pew measure of religious commitment (measuring frequency of attendance, frequency of prayer, the degree of importance of religion, and personal belief in God), the most religiously committed, on this index are Portugal, Italy, Ireland, and Spain. The least observant are the UK, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden. A neutral observer with limited knowledge of Protestant evaluations of Roman Catholic Christianity might wonder why missionaries from the latter countries are being sent to the former(!).

When Pew measured for the highest level of religious commitment (by an individual scoring two from four of the following list: attending church at least monthly, praying daily, belief in God with certainty, and religion being very important to them), it’s clear that most Christians in WE show only moderate to low levels of religious commitment. Despite this, they are more likely than others to report that God rewards, punishes, communicates, and interacts with them. At least half of these believe in a biblical God.

The Pew researchers highlight the very strong link between religious observance (not just identity) and civic participation. This results in highly committed Christians also being involved in charitable, voluntary, and community groups and activities. It’s possible that this spills over into their increased likelihood of expressing nationalist views and saying that ancestry is key to national identity. It may also be connected to the fact that they are more likely to express negative views of Muslims, Jews and immigrants, than do the ‘nones’, and are more likely to describe immigrants from Africa and the Middle East as neither honest nor hardworking.

What questions does the Report raise for missionaries serving in, and sent from, the countries of Western Europe?
The report makes important comparisons for missionaries bound for Europe from the USA. These are valuable and, for example, Pew researchers note that 53 percent of Americans say that religion is important to them whilst for WEs the figure is a mere 11 percent. Missionaries from the USA must adjust assumptions and expectations when talking to people about faith and belief.

Even where a missionary, or church leader, might struggle with a non-practising Western European’s claim to Christian identity, there remains the need to take such claims seriously and to discern what meaning is attached to such self-descriptions. Being comfortable in working with such expressions of implicit faith is a necessary skill for the missionary in Western Europe. The report shows clearly that there are many WEs for whom Christianity serves as a religious, social, and cultural marker. Accepting this need not imply a negation of the evangelistic motivation, but it might require a revision of evangelistic assumptions.

Occasionally people ask how a missiologist can write about Europe from an office in Sydney. It’s a fair question, but it’s also fair to ask, ‘How can a missionary from the irreligious Netherlands do mission in the highly religious context of Portugal?’ Of course, my Australian context inevitably influences how I engage with Europe. Equally, a Dutch missionary, shaped by his or her Dutch irreligious context (if the Pew report is correct), will be deeply influenced by this and it will impact on how they do mission among the highly religious Portuguese, sometimes with negative consequences. In fact, one might suggest that because the Netherlands is the only Western European country where ‘nones’ (48%) outnumber ‘Christians’ (41%) and where 40% of people have a negative view of religion, it is time for missionaries to turn their attention to the Netherlands as a mission-receiving field rather than Portugal, Italy, Spain, or France!

An effective national or cross-cultural worker might wisely reflect on how to build connections to the 65% of WEs who believe they have a soul, particularly those who say they are either religious and/or spiritual, for whom the level of belief in a soul increases to between 75-85 percent. Identifying the potential for such connections is a particular strength of this report and there are probably other leads that lie waiting to be discovered.

A final observation – Sport!
My co-editors will probably smile with me making this point! Although 36 percent of WEs are involved in a sports club, only 31 percent of highly committed Christians are similarly engaged. In contrast, 39 percent of the ‘nones’ are involved. If Christians want to meet non-believers, they will need to get a lot fitter and take up sporting activities to meet them! This is especially true for the soccer-mad (and Roman Catholic) European nations like Spain and Italy. Regular church attendance is almost certainly a constraint on regular involvement in sport or recreational activities for highly committed Christians. Even cross-cultural missionaries are prone to making similar mistakes. Pew’s researchers note the tendency for friendship circles to largely include people with a similar religious identity: ‘nones’ hang out with ‘nones’; church-attending Christians with other church-attending Christians, for example.

Making social connections no doubt contributes to the report’s observation that, for example, in France, 8 percent of those who have been raised religiously unaffiliated say that they are now Christian. This is encouraging. Across Europe, the number of former ‘nones’ who have embraced Christianity sits in the region of 10 to 12 percent.

Darrell Jackson is Associate Professor of missiology, Morling College, Sydney. Responses are welcome at