There are plenty of ways one can assess the health or otherwise of a nation, or people, or continent. There are numerous measures: economic, social, political, ideological, cultural, demographic, and so on. But on top of all these is one more which is the most important. People of faith will also gauge the spiritual condition of a people or nation.
My recent trip to Europe has reminded me of this. Only my second time there since living in Europe over 25 years ago, there have certainly been many changes which have occurred on the continent. Some are changes for the better, and some for the worse. Many of these demographic, moral, political and social changes I have documented elsewhere.
But here I wish to briefly address the spiritual state of Europe. It has long been realised that Europe has become the most secular and the least Christian continent on earth. It has seemed to be all one way traffic there, with the Christian faith slowly but surely dying out in most European nations.
Spiritual demographers have also noted that while Europe and the West as a whole are floundering when it comes to Christianity, God has not abandoned planet earth. Indeed, great things are still happening in the world, but not in places where we have tended to expect to see God at work.
We have known for some time now that the spiritual centre of gravity has moved south. Books like The Next Christendom by Philip Jenkins (OUP, 2002), have chronicled this shift. Places like Africa, Asia and Latin America are the new hot spots when it comes to church growth. Marvellous things are taking place there, and the Kingdom of God is far from finished on planet earth.
But many have wondered about the West in general and Europe in particular. Has God abandoned the West? Are the days of God’s grace upon Europe over? Many might conclude that the church has indeed died or is near death throughout Europe.
Yet even in the short quarter century since I last lived in Europe, one can clearly see that God is not at all finished with Europe yet. Many exciting moves of God are taking place in Europe. Often the mainstream media is not reporting these activities, but they are occurring nonetheless.
Consider the nation of Holland, where I lived and worked so many years ago. There are clear signs of God at work. Holland at the moment is actually being run by a coalition of Christian political parties, and the Prime Minister is a Christian.
Some of the famous Dutch liberalism and tolerance has been tightened up a bit. The once ubiquitous drug dealers around Amsterdam’s central district and the sprawling red light districts have both been cleaned up and curtailed. Even some of the drug cafes have been restricted in number and scope.
But it is the revitalisation of the church in the nation that is especially intriguing. There are now numerous evangelical churches in Holland with large and thriving congregations. One church in Amsterdam has over 2000 members. Such numbers were unheard of a few decades ago.
And the amazing thing is, many of these large and spiritually vital churches are led by migrants who have come to Holland. The large Amsterdam church has as its head pastor an African. Indeed, many of these big churches are being led by Nigerians and Ghanaians.
Missionaries and church planters from places such as South Korea, Brazil and Uganda are doing great works for God in the Netherlands and throughout Europe. Indeed, when I was staying at a Youth With a Mission base in Amsterdam just the other week, a large South Korean disciple training school was in full swing.
Many commentators have rightly warned about the huge influx of Muslim migrants into Europe, and how the demographic picture in Europe is changing considerably as a result. I too have written much about these trends. But it is vital to realise that the migrants are not just those from Muslim nations. Many non-Muslim migrants are arriving in Europe as well.
Indeed, many of these are Christian migrants, of various stripes. So God is at work even in the changing European demographics. Of course the threats of Islamic jihad and terrorism, and concerns about the spread of sharia law cannot be discounted, and we must remain vigilant about such trends.
But nonetheless God has not abandoned Europe. Back in 2004 YWAM Europe Director Jeff Fountain wrote a book about the spiritual scene in Europe, and what God was doing there. Entitled Living as People of Hope, he noted that while the rise of secularism, Islam and a new paganism is a very real concern indeed in Europe, there is still cause for hope.
He notes the whole new move of God in Europe: the various prayer initiatives, church planting movements, Alpha courses, youth events, and so on. He notes how denominational barriers are breaking down, as believers of differing backgrounds realise the importance of working together for the cause of Christ.
He concludes his book with a scene from The Lord of the Rings. Theoden, king of Rohan, has been bound by dark spirits for years, and is really no king at all. Gandalf enters the Golden Hall, and breaks the spell that his counsellor Wormtongue has put on him.
Says Gandalf, “I bid you come out before your doors and look abroad. Too long have you sat in shadows and trusted in twisted tales and crooked promptings”. Once the dark spell is broken, Theoden stands to his feet, proud and tall, ready to rightfully resume his reign.
So too Europe. God is not finished yet. The good thing he has started he will bring to completion. These are indeed exciting times: times of challenge and opportunity. But the promises of God remain: “He who has begun a good work in you will carry it on to completion” as Paul tells us in Phil. 1:6.
When King Theoden was set free, he summoned his army and went forth into battle. As Jeff Fountain asks, “What is the state of the church in our nation? Still bent and crouched, listening to Wormtongue’s twisted tales? or standing tall and straight, reaching out to grasp her long-disused weaponry?”
On the surface Europe is not looking very good right now. But God is often at work inside, where those without spiritual vision cannot see. But God is working nonetheless, and if he can awaken a comatose Europe, there is tremendous hope for the rest of the world as well.