Rethinking Mission in Europe: An African Contribution

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I am an African. I was born and raised up in Southern Malawi. I have worked in Europe and the United States for the past twenty years. I came to Europe in 2000 to teach at a now defunct school of ministry in Saint Gallen, Switzerland. For various reasons, what I did then—ministry that eventually took me to several countries around Europe—was not called “missions.”

Many of the people I worked with did not understand that an African can be a missionary, let alone serve in Europe. So, I worked as a Christian youth worker for three years before deciding to seek training that would enable me to be effective in mission among Europeans. I would acquire that training in Britain and in the United States where I studies while continuing to serve in mission. My work started out as a short-term mission service in Switzerland. Twenty years later, I am still here, and I am gravely concerned about the state of mission in Europe.   

Indeed, living in Europe for this long time has afforded me an opportunity to observe and experience both the overwhelming impact of secularism on the European religious landscape and the utter helplessness of most European Christians to effectively engage it and evangelise their own neighbours. For instance, in my current line of work, I interact on a regular basis with students from several universities in Europe. I have learned that an overwhelming majority of university students in Europe refuse to identify as religious. My unpublished research on the faith of varsity-age children of African migrants in Britain suggests that less than 10 percent of overall university students self-identify as religious, and less than 5 percent per cent of them identify as active evangelical Christians.  I learned from the younger-generation of African students that many of their non-religious European mates say that they are actually two or three generations detached from Christianity and, as such, they generally associate the word “Christian” with the Bible-carrying, tongue-speaking Nigerian Pentecostals who rent their school halls for church services or the Polish Catholics who have made the Mass viable again in their neighbourhood parish. I find this situation terrifying, especially when I hear many mainstream mission conversations in Europe spend more time discussing how to reach the Muslims in Europe or to send more missionaries to Africa and other places, paying little attention to the mission field among Europeans. We still need to discern how best to engage the post-Christian Europeans in mission.   

The concern that I have for the state of mission in Europe cannot be adequately put into words. I do not agree with those Africans who want to taunt Europe saying, “Who is the heathen now?” Yet, the irony is there for all to see. Most European Christians, in my estimation, do not even begin to understand the seriousness of the situation. They have lived through the secularisation process and so they have been conditioned to see it as normal. It often takes foreign eyes (such as of returning Europeans or non-European migrants) to see things that seem normal to locals. For instance, upon coming back to England after over 30 years in India, Lesslie Newbigin was shocked to see that Britain had become a mission field like India — a harder mission field because, adding, “It [mission] is much harder than anything I met in India. There is a cold contempt for the Gospel [in Britain], which is harder to face than opposition … England is a pagan society, and the development of a truly missionary encounter with this very tough form of paganism is the greatest and practical task facing the church.” This challenge is yet to be seriously picked up, and I am afraid Newbigin’s voice is slowly disappearing into the distant past. For those of us who have witnessed the explosion of Christianity in other parts of the world, the shock of a post-Christian and secular Europe is unfathomable. Many of us who have grown up seeing people flock to church almost every day of the week are shocked to see Europeans walk away from Christianity in large numbers. There is hope, though. God has sent help in the form of many prayerful and zealous Christians from around the world, understandably needing to learn the context, but ready and eager to engage. They do not use the label “missionaries.” Many of them are economic migrants, but they are Christians, very ready to serve God in Europe.   

Given a chance to speak to mission leaders in Europe, I would emphasise three issues. First, I would ask them to begin to seriously think of Europe as a mission field. This is necessary because first, church history suggests that de-Christianised societies find it hard to convert back to Christianity. North Africa and Asia Minor are good examples.

Second, the Enlightenment-shaped secularised Europeans present a unique mission field different from almost every other people group in the world. Indeed, while the rest of the world is furiously religious, Europe, being an “exceptional case” (Davie) is becoming increasingly secular. Mission among secular Europeans, or indeed, secular anybody, is uncharted territory. Even more, mission and evangelism among Europeans cannot rely on the help of colonial empires as like most of the missionary work that took place around the world in the twentieth century. To many 20th century Africans, for example, the missionary and the coloniser were serving the same purpose. For those of us working in Europe today, we need to learn how to evangelise without attempting to colonise — which, I believe is how mission ought to be done everywhere. All this is to say that if we engage Europe as a mission field, we will need a new missiology. Just like the old missionaries studied their mission fields, we need to train missionaries for Europe. We need to send missionaries to European countries.   

Second, I would encourage them to consider treating mission in Europe as a spiritual endeavour that I believe it is. The key to doing this is prayer. Above everything, it is prayer that will open the gates to shine God’s light in Europe. Plans, strategies, and visions are excellent, but they will achieve more if they are undergirded by prayer. Of course, even our social ministries that seek to dismantle systemic injustices will have greater impact when they are carried forward in prayer. Revivals happen –I am sure about this – but they happen because of prayer. We need prayer when we plant churches, when we run our food banks, when we distribute tracts on the high street, when we visit the sick in the hospital, and when we visit those in prison. We need prayer in everything we do.

Third, I would ask them to realise that to evangelise Europe, we need all Christians living in Europe to be involved. This is critical because of, firstly, the colonial history of mission and the racist history of Europe’s relationship with the rest of the world and, secondly, because the European mission field includes many hundreds of thousands of non-white Europeans and non-Western immigrants. Europeans will not reach all these people without the help  of  the  global  church  currently present  in  Europe.  Let  the  Brazilians, the  Nigerians,  and  the  Koreans,  and the  many  other  foreign Christians find their place  in  mission  in Europe.  I  would  ask European  leaders  to patiently  help  the  foreign Christians to contribute to their sense of mission.

Unfortunately,  of  course,  Europeans have  a  hard  time  receiving  or  asking for  help.  Many  Westerners  are  good speakers  but  bad  listeners,  especially if it is  non-Westerners  speaking. Generally  speaking,  Europeans  always do  the  teaching,  and  the  Africans  must listen  and  learn. I do think  that  if  the  man  of Macedonia  (of  Acts  16) called  for  help  today,  he would  be  ordered  to  just go  to  meet  Paul  at Troas. But  in  this  current context  of  mission  in Europe  will  need Europeans  to  do  some listening,  and  to  learn  to receive  help  from Westerners  living  among  them.  The Spirit  of  God  will  help  us Africans  and  other  non to  do  all  this.   It  is  God’s  mission  after  all.

Berger, The  Desecularization  of  the World:  Resurgent  Religion  and  World Politics. Grand  Rapids,  MI:  W.B. Eerdmans,  1999. Davie, Europe the  Exceptional  Case: Parameters  of  Faith  in  the  Modern World. London:  Darton  Longman  & Todd,  2002.
Kwiyani, Our  Children  Need  Roots  and Wings:  Equipping  and  Empowering  Young Diaspora  Africans  for  Life  and Mission Liverpool:  Self CreateSpace,  2018.
Newbigin,pub., Unfinished  Agenda:  An Autobiography. Geneva:  WCC Publications,  1985.

Harvey  Kwiyani Lecturer  in  African  Christianity  and Theology,  Liverpool  Hope  University

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2 Comments on “Rethinking Mission in Europe: An African Contribution”

  1. Sam Says:

    Thank you Harvey for the apt way you captured your thoughts. The first time I felt this way, though without enough polished words like yours, I shared my burden with Rob Hay, then principal at Redcliffe. My worry continues because it seems very few people are listening to this ‘voice in the wilderness’; colleges need to train missionaries for re-evangelisation of Europe, make prayer a serious business in mission to Europe and be open to try out new things even if it is from the global south – receiving mission. This is in addition to the global south Christians learning and understanding the contemporary culture in the West. Shalom!

  2. […] with permission by Vista, see original article herePhoto by Samuel […]

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