On June 23 of this year, Pope Benedict XVI addressed a number of professors and rectors of European universities. In his address, the pope reminded those present that “Europe is presently experiencing a certain social instability and diffidence in the face of traditional values, yet her distinguished history and her established academic institutions have much to contribute to shaping a future of hope.” Of immediate interest to the original audience, I imagine, was the pope’s assertion that academic institutions will have a hand in shaping the future.
Of greater interest to evangelical Christians should be Pope Benedict’s declaration that Europe’s “distinguished history” can also have a role to play in creating a future hope for Europe. This statement, if accurate, can perhaps show evangelicals the way forward in their missionary work in Europe. For a number of years evangelical mission agencies dedicated exclusively to reaching post-Christian Europe (especially western Europe) with the gospel, such as Greater Europe Mission and the European Christian Mission (now ECM International), have focused on both education and church planting. The anecdotal evidence that I have heard over the years is that neither of these strategies, if you will, are overwhelmingly successful. This, of course, is not to dismiss the good work that missionaries are doing across Europe nor is it easy or even proper to begin measuring “success” in such endeavors. However, Pope Benedict XVI may be showing evangelical mission agencies a way forward among Europeans.
Many of the Europeans that I have met over the years are intensely proud of their history, including their religious heritage. In the words of the pope, Europeans have a “distinguished history” and they enjoy discussing it with outsiders. This illustrious history, of course, includes at least 1900 years of overt Christian presence and witness, something that even the most secular, non-Christian, educated European will likely readily acknowledge. So if this history can contribute to shaping the future of Europe in positive, Christian ways (as Benedict XVI had in mind), why can’t this history also be the springboard for evangelism?
For example, in July and August of 1998 I spent two weeks traveling around France, visiting Cistercian monasteries during the nonacentenary of the founding of the original Cistercian monastery at Cîteaux. Towards the end of my trip, I spent several days at the present monastery of Cîteaux where I met a very delightful Parisian who was also making a retreat (of sorts) at the monastery. One day after the liturgy, we struck up a conversation that continued throughout the afternoon as we took a stroll through the surrounding countryside.
What I soon learned about this thirty-something Frenchmen was that he knew his country’s history well, including its religious history, and took great pride in talking to me about it. Granted, this fellow was staying at a monastery so he already had some interest in or attachment to the church, that is, the Roman Catholic Church. However, this encounter demonstrated to me that engaging Europeans in conversation about their history will nearly always result in a good, and often, long conversation. My own personal experience tells me that this is true in France, Ukraine, Turkey, Italy and England. I can only assume that it is likely true elsewhere in Europe. That said, perhaps evangelicals should adopt the most basic style of evangelism when working in Europe — engage is simple, yet informed, conversation.
Of course, to talk with someone about his or her history it is necessary that one knows another’s history fairly well. This is where evangelical missionaries (or at least those from North America) will likely come up short, unless they took their undergraduate degree in European history. Evangelical seminaries today do not give much time to the study of history, including Christian history. The most cursory survey of requirements at some of the largest evangelical seminaries will prove this statement true. The result of this is that pastors and, more importantly, missionaries are not initially well prepared to discuss the church’s history. Of course, any seminary graduate who intends to serve as a missionary in a country other than their own likely spends time getting to know the history of the country to which he/she has been called, though some may not be so diligent. But beyond important dates and chief personalities, successful conversation with a Frenchman, for example, will take a deeper knowledge.
When I engaged the aforementioned Parisian in conversation, I began by talking about the history of the Cistercian order since we were both staying at the order’s motherhouse during its 900th anniversary. It was a logical place to start. However, the conversation soon left the Cistercian order and became a discussion about monasticism in general and the earliest history of the Christian church in Gaul. My graduate-level training in church history from St. John’s School of Theology in Minnesota was paying off. I was certainly glad that I had spent time studying church history at a Roman Catholic school, for it certainly prepared me to talk intelligently about Christian history in France but it also prepared me to engage this man on a deeper level than my evangelical seminary had prepared me to do.
Since that time, I have often thought about the opportunity that I had been afforded during those few days at Cîteaux. Because I could talk knowledgeably with this man, he was willing to hear me share about my own evangelical Christian faith and, frankly, why I was not a Roman Catholic. God used my knowledge of European Christian history to open a door; Benedict XVI seems to think that this door remains open as an avenue towards making a real difference in modern Europe.