Some thoughts on how we should engage with adherents of the state religions in Europe. Again, I am thinking primarily of Catholics, but engagement with Orthodoxy and other state religions will be similar, I think.
Engage with the gospel. Evangelicals need to look to engage SCA’s (state church adherents) on every possible front, with love, generosity, grace, and openness. DON’T WITHDRAW. Follow the Acts model of engagement, as I described in a previous post.
Stop railing against the state church apparatus, the papacy, etc., in sermons and private conversations. True story: I was once with a group of Christian leaders in Croatia where the entire topic of a two-hour conversation was “reasons to believe that Catholics worship the devil.”
When you preach & teach about “reasons to believe that Catholics worship the devil,” you’re not edifying your people. You’re not helping them engage productively. You’re also driving away the SCA’s who are open to listening to the gospel.
Catholics in Croatia are well aware of the abuses of the state church, its role in the wars that have torn Europe for centuries, etc. THEY KNOW ABOUT THAT. What they need to hear about is a God who is not limited to human institutions (Christ outside christendom) restores their honor, removes their guilt and shame, and lives within them to help them become the people he created them to be.
Hostility toward the state religions is self-defeating.
Don’t be so quick to chase after respect on society’s terms. Europe today regards evangelicals as a cult, a sect. The tendency of evangelicals native to the culture is to respond by seeking legitimacy on the culture’s terms: “We’re just as good as you are. We’re just as legitimate as you are.” Controversial opinion: I think this is a huge blunder.
When it comes to religious movements, European society equates legitimacy with institutions; show me your buildings, show me your history, show me your treasures, and I will regard you as legitimate. CHASING LEGITIMACY ON THESE TERMS IS A CATEGORY MISTAKE.
(The mistake is the difference between Christianity and christendom. But that’s another post.)
The Roman world thought of the earliest Christians as atheists, because the Christians did not have temples or visible gods (idols). The parallels are self-evident. Evangelicals in Europe today should feel honored that European society treats them the same way the Roman world treated the first followers of Jesus. And–again, the Acts model–we should respond the way the first Christians responded.
I’m not suggesting that we embrace the “sect” label, but we shouldn’t downplay the differences either. This, too, is a way of being IN the world but not OF the world.
I’m fear I am making a hash of this. Maybe this story will help me explain:
During our recent trip to Prague, our tour guide was telling us about the religious history of that region.
We were all Catholic. Then the king said, ‘You are Protestant,’ and we all became Protestant.
Then another king said, ‘You are Catholic.’ We said, ‘No, we’re Protestant.’
The king said, ‘All Protestants have to leave my kingdom.’ So we said, ‘Ok, we’re Catholic.’
Then the Communists came and said, ‘You are all atheists.’ And we thought, ‘We were Catholics, then we were Protestants, then we were Catholics again. So we may as well be atheists.’
My point: there is a strong streak of conformity in the way Europeans think about religion. Americans are highly individualistic, and religion to us is primarily internal: our thoughts, convictions. European culture–at least in Eastern Europe, where I work–are high conformity cultures. And religion is more social and less internal, therefore less open to individualism. That can be a strength or a weakness.
When European evangelicals chase legitimacy by the rules of the society around them–show me your buildings, show me your history, show me your treasures–we are handicapping ourselves. We need to keep the main thing–the gospel, the Kingdom of God, and not legitimacy according to secular standards–the main thing.
(Why is my school pursuing accreditation, then? Because accreditation will help us carry out our mission, not because we think it gives us legitimacy that we don’t currently have.)