In Europe, over the last five to six years, the word ‘crisis’ has been applied most frequently to the economic situation. However, Europe faces crises on many different levels. There is an economic crisis, but there is also a political crisis, a social crisis, an environmental crisis, and a religious crisis. Only a multi-dimensional analysis can do justice to the complex situation and give meaningful insights into the implications of the crisis for the future of mission in Europe.This article will briefly describe the challenges that Europe currently faces within each of these five dimensions (economic, political, social, environmental, and religious) before considering the implications for Christian mission in Europe today. As the only continent where the church has not seen growth over the last 100 years, perhaps today’s crisis in Europe will turn out to be God’s opportunity.1
1. Economic crisis
Despite the best efforts of the European Central Bank, the state of Europe’s economy remains perilous. Many southern European countries continue to struggle with high levels of public and private debt. Unemployment remains stubbornly high—26% in Greece and 24% in Spain, and 50% and 54% respectively among the under 25s.2
In the Eurozone, individual countries are no longer able to devalue their currencies to regain competitiveness; so the only alternative is savage public sector cuts. Countries of Central and Eastern Europe are suffering from the collapsed export markets of Western Europe. The recent fall in the price of oil and the economic sanctions due to the conflict in Ukraine are impacting not only Russia but also the other neighbouring European states.
German dependence on exports leaves them vulnerable to the slowdown in Asia and sanctions on Russia. The British economy, unburdened by the restrictions of the euro, is growing but is still very dependent on the financial sector. French industry, the motor of the second biggest economy in Europe, is haemorrhaging money due to poor competitiveness. With Eurozone inflation having turned negative, the risk of a deflationary spiral and a return to recession across Europe is real.
The imbalances within the Eurozone continue unresolved, meaning the solution for some countries would make things worse in others. Economically it might be better for there to be a breakup of the single currency, but politically this is unthinkable; so Europe may well be condemned to 10-20 years of very low economic growth.
2. Political crisis
Pressure within the EU
The strict economic measures applied by the European Central Bank on some Eurozone countries have generated significant political and, in some countries, social unrest as well as a significant change in attitudes to the EU. Euroscepticism can now be found in many places across Europe, and in Britain the pressure for a referendum on Britain’s withdrawal from the EU is building in the run-up to this year’s general election.
The victory of anti-austerity party Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, in Greece’s recent general election and the dramatic rise of sister party Podemos in Spain reflect this change in attitudes.
Pressure from extremist parties
Nationalist, populist, and xenophobic movements are on the increase in many parts of Europe. Extreme right-wing politicians are able to tap into popular malcontent at soaring unemployment and point the finger at migrants as the ones to blame. The protests of xenophobic groups are only likely to be fuelled by the January terrorist attacks in Paris.
Pressure from the regions
During 2014, the EU faced unprecedented attempts by two regions to form new independent states. Scotland held a referendum on independence from the UK in September resulting in a narrow rejection of independence, but only at the cost of measures which may require fundamental constitutional reforms. In Spain, the Catalan nationalists held an unofficial referendum in November which saw 80% of voters back independence. It is likely that pro-independence movements across Europe will only get stronger in the years to come.
3. Social crisis
Until quite recently, migration from outside the EU has been twice that from within. The EU-27 foreign population (people residing in an EU-27 member state with citizenship of a non-member country) on 1 January 2013 was 20.4 million, representing 4.1% of the EU-27 population. Yet perhaps a more representative figure for the migrant population is the 33.5 million people (6.7%) who were born outside of the EU-27.3 Integration of these migrants has and is proving to be a real challenge. Added to this are new migration flows within the EU due to the accession of new countries and the economic crisis which has led to significant internal migration from Mediterranean countries to Northern Europe and particularly Germany and Britain.4
Europe is in the early stages of another social crisis that is entirely of its own making: the ageing of its population due to Europeans’ reticence to procreate. Fertility rates in every state of the EU are below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman.5 The impact of these demographic changes on the future of Europe is sobering. In broad terms the current generation of adults is being replaced by one that is less than two-thirds its size. In 1960, 11.5% of Germany’s population was over 65. By 2060, it will be 33%. The average age in Italy in 1960 was 31.2 years. By 2060 it will be over 50.
4. Environmental crisis
The economic crisis has left environmental concerns way down the political agenda. However, the recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made clear that every continent would suffer the consequences of climate change in the decades to come. Extreme weather is occurring ever more frequently across the globe.
5. Religious crisis
Christians face two clear challenges: secularism, which predominates in the public sphere and relegates religion to the private domain, and Islam, which is ever more evident in parts of Europe that have not previously had a Muslim community.
At the same time, sociologists of religion have observed the resilience of religious belief in many places around Europe. Some are even talking about a re-sacralisation of Europe.
Mission in a Europe where crisis is the new normal
1. Mission in the midst of economic crisis
Europe almost certainly faces a long period of economic stagnation. This will cause significant problems for resource-dependent churches and mission agencies. Chronic unemployment will mean that ‘business as mission’ becomes a primary means of communicating hope and demonstrating love to tomorrow’s Europeans.6 Social justice, simplicity, and sustainability will become key values of Christian community.
2. Mission in the midst of political crisis
The possibility that the EU might fracture into economic or political ‘zones’ may threaten existing international mission arrangements. Conflicts within and between countries may make mission to European refugees a necessity. As independence movements benefit from widespread Euroscepticism, the Christian voice in the public square will be vital to speak for peace, justice, and solidarity.
3. Mission in the midst of social crisis
Intergenerational tensions will increase as an indebted younger generation rails against the wealth of the elderly and the costs of pensions and healthcare. This will make the church one of the few intergenerational communities in Europe and a powerful demonstration of the truth of the gospel. Care for the elderly will become another of the principal activities of Christian mission.
Mission to migrants and by migrants will accelerate—migrant churches will become increasingly contextualised; native churches will become increasingly internationalised.
4. Mission in the midst of environmental crisis
The increased prevalence of extreme weather and the higher CO2 levels in the atmosphere which will move fertile latitudes northwards, will lead to further migration. As this begins to occur, environmental initiatives and engagement will move from the margins to the mainstream of mission. At the same time, mission will become increasingly virtualised—both because of technological innovations and because of cost/environmental factors.
5. Mission in the midst of religious crisis
Continued migration from the Global South and higher fertility rates amongst migrants will cause resurgence in religious adherence—both Christian and Muslim. As liberal secularism proves incapable of providing the existential security it once promised, Islam and Christianity will compete in offering hope to a re-sacralised Europe.
However, for the foreseeable future, the dual processes of secularisation and re-sacralisation will continue simultaneously—many churches will continue to disappear, many more new churches will be planted, and new forms of Christian community will emerge to engage with this new reality.
Implications and responses
In Europe, there is one continually repeated message, whether in the mouths of politicians, economists, or the media: if only we can return to economic growth then we can get back on the road to peace, progress, and prosperity. That is the dominant ideology of today’s Europe: an ideology of economic growth as our guarantee of existential security in the present and eschatological hope for the future.
Today most Europeans hope not for the return of the Lord Jesus but for the return of economic growth. All will be well if we can see a return to a nice steady growth in GDP. Of course that hope is built on the fallacy that perpetual economic growth is possible.
Even if it were possible, is economic growth really the hope for Europe? Surely only Christ can truly satisfy the hopes and aspirations of Europe’s peoples. To believe otherwise is to deny the gospel.
We have become so accustomed to the peace and prosperity of the last 60 years since the end of the Second World War, that peace and prosperity are seen as Europe’s normal setting. The truth is that the last 60 years are an extraordinary historical anomaly.
For most of Europe’s history, crisis has been the normal context for the church’s life and mission. In crisis after crisis, the churches of Europe have survived and in many cases thrived. If Christians have to adapt to a new context of long-term crisis in Europe, we can do so in the confidence that previous generations of European believers have done so.
The hope for Europe
To do this we need to reject the secular eschatology of economic progress. Christians have an extraordinary message of extraordinary hope at times of crisis. So the churches of Europe have a tremendous opportunity. For the first time in a generation, Europeans are questioning the hope and security that this world offers. It is the moment for churches to regain their confidence in the gospel as the hope for Europe, especially in times of crisis.
Lesslie Newbigin was once interviewed on the radio and was asked the question: ‘Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the church?’ Newbigin was silent. He said nothing for 10 or 15 seconds, which of course is an eternity on the radio, until finally responding: ‘I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist: Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.’
Europe faces a multi-dimensional crisis with huge implications for European states and for Christian mission. Yet the Christian message of hope is the same one that has sustained generations of Europeans through all the crises of history: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Europe’s crisis is God’s opportunity.
2 Eurostat, Euro Area Unemployment Rate at 11.5%, 2015, accessed 8 January 2015, http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/documents/2995521/6454659/3-07012015-AP-EN.pdf/f4d2866e-0562-49f5-8f29-67e1be16f50a.
3 Eurostat, Migration and Migrant Population Statistics, 2014, accessed 8 January 2015, http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Migration_and_migrant_population_statistics.
5 Eurostat, Total Fertility Rate, 2012, accessed 8 January 2015, http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/tgm/table.do?tab=table&init=1&language=en&pcode=tsdde220&plugin=1.
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