Europe: culturally captive and a mission field

Just a century ago, Europe was not seen by everybody as a mission field. The Edinburgh 1910 World Mission Conference published a World Atlas portraying mission stations geographically. Within Europe, only missionary work among the Jews was mapped. This reflected the dominance of the Anglican Churches which insisted that Europe was not to be considered a mission field due to the presence there of Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

Europe and North America were described as mission fields at the Tambaram meetings of the 3rd World Mission Conference of the International Missionary Council in 1938. Europe was gradually being toppled from its throne as ‘top Christian continent’. With it would go view that the Christian Gospel was synonymous with the advance of Western civilisation and universal norms although the links were still being argued well into the 1950s.

At the World Mission Conference held in Bangkok, 1972, the cultural superiority and dominance of western Christianity was categorically proclaimed. By the 1996 World Mission Conference of the WCC in Salvador de Bahia saw acclaimed missiologist, Lesslie Newbigin, pointedly ask how the western churches which proposed to evangelise the whole world in one generation could be saved from their own cultural captivity.’ Salvador’s acceptance of cultural diversity and plurality within global Christianity marked the end of Eurocentric forms of thinking within ecumenical missiology.

It seems obvious now that Europe is a mission field. Surveys, anecdotes, the popular media, and our own daily encounters, together paint a picture of a continent populated to a very large extend by practical secularists. The churches haven’t quite managed to shake off these tendencies either.

Despite this, the New Testament doesn’t seem to allow us to retreat into pessimism, insisting that the light of Christ always shines in the darkness (Jn 1:5). If Europe is truly the ‘Dark Continent’ (and personally I don’t find this kind of language helpful) then we would expect to find the light of Christ shining in it – even to the extent that it is not overwhelmed by the darkness.

It’s true that European theology is not universal theology. That can be hard at times for evangelicals who have struggled to come to terms with the churches of the global south who have argued that social justice should be seen as a constituent part of the Gospel. It has also been equally challenging for enlightenment evangelicals to accommodate the world-view of the global south that has little difficulty in making room for spirits, demons, and the so-called ‘supernatural’. The consequent emphasis on exorcism, spiritual warfare, and other forms of spirit activity has not always been widely welcomed by western evangelicals who function as practical materialists in this sense.

Despite this, the de-throning of European theology has been accompanied by a growing awareness of the reductionist character of western evangelicalism’s dogmas and an accompanying appreciation of the contribution of global missiology to our own limited understandings and practice of mission.

Comments welcome!

Explore posts in the same categories: Edinburgh 2010, europe, mission

3 Comments on “Europe: culturally captive and a mission field”

  1. simon jones Says:

    Interesting stuff. I think the situation is pretty complex.
    Last summer I was teaching New Testament in Sri Lanka and was challenged about importing western theological ideas, tainted by rationalism, into an Asian context. The man making the comments was a church leader whose English language, though mainly Sri Lankan church had worship a music repetoire that was entirely importaed from Hillsong (which he described as ‘pure gospel’).
    I think that every context is both culturally captive and a mission field. I guess the good thing about the collapse of Christendom is that nowhere is ‘Christian’, everywhere needs to have the gospel emobodied in culturally relevant, Jesus centred communities.


    • I’ve just begun reading Al Tizon’s ‘Transformation after Lausanne: Radical Evangelical Mission in Global-Local Perspective’. It’s really helping me to clarify my own mission thinking which I’ve come to realise is shaped so much by my theological formation at LBC (or London School of Theology – as it is now); living in the same country as John Stott; postgraduate study at Selly Oak; experiencing both the EA and TEAR fund as ‘jolly good things’; going to Russia for the first time and discovering/feeling that I was not just a ‘Christian’ but that I was a ‘Western Christianity’.
      I could add more, but those are the bones of the personal journey that have shaped core convictions and which inform my reading of the Bible.

  2. simon jones Says:

    I was likewise shaped at LST, taught to ‘read’ scripture, interact with ‘western’ philosophical ideas and to create a model of mission that related to the western culture in which I was living.
    Travelling with BMS in Asia and to visit friends in Africa for extended periods, I encountered this same approach to scripture and mission, the same language being used to talk about God and the human predicament.
    In particular, looking back I am struck by how our gospel in all contexts is about individuals, their hearing of and response to a message of personal change and commitment. That makes me wonder.
    Is this the reading of scripture that would have been formed by African and Asian theologians had they not been trained in western accredited institutions?
    Of course, it is also the case that that we need a message about Jesus in language that resonates with the post-modern, post-Christendom world in which we westerners live and move and have our being, a way of thinking about the world that in turn shapes how we read the Bible and relate to God.
    I remember having conversations at LST about what is the core of the gospel – is it personal salvation or social transformation? How does the one relate to the other? What does the Bible actually say?
    I could go on. I’d be grateful for resources to help me wrestle with these issues in my context. I am currently reading Alan Roxburgh’s new book (I always find him stimulating and provocative). Other suggestions would be welcome.


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