Secularity: Dogma Meets Diversity In Europe

Editor’s Note: This Cape Town 2010 Advance Paper has been written by Robert Calvert as an overview of the topic to be discussed at the Multiplex session on “Dogma and Diversity: Can Evangelical Truth Effectively Face Up to Secularity in a Pluralistic World?” Responses to this paper through the Lausanne Global Conversation will be fed back to the author and others to help shape their final presentations at the Congress.

According to Greek mythology, Zeus, the chief of the gods, kidnapped Europa, daughter of the king of Phoenicia. He did so by approaching her in the shape of a bull. When she sat upon the bull, it took her to the island of Crete where Zeus revealed his true self to her. A French translation interpreted this abduction story as the stealing of Europe’s soul by God. Is there a sense within the soul of Europe of the presence of the living God? If there is such a thing as a European soul, it has certainly been affected by pagan, Celtic, Jewish and Muslim spirituality.  But today, it should be described as one of secularity.

If secularism is the philosophy of “the death of God” and secularization is the process by which people lose faith, then secularity is the paradigm that undergirds and creates the framework for such an age. “Secularity, in counter distinction to secularism or secularization, refers to the conditions of beliefs or the shift in our understanding on which our society is grounded.” 1. In this centenary year of the groundbreaking World Mission Conference in Edinburgh, we attempt to briefly set out the context of 1910 to 2010 for understanding secularity. For it was from Europe at the end of the 19th century that first came the era of labour-intensive industrialization (urbanization) – otherwise known as the ‘muscle’ period. 2. In between 1910 and 2010 in the middle of the 20th century there arose the era of capital- intensive industrialization (metropolitan-ization) – otherwise known as the ‘machine’ period. By 1990 or the late 20th century the whole world, led by Western technological revolutions, entered the era of information-intensive industrialization (globalization) – otherwise known as the ‘mind’ period. While the new worldview kept the economic mode of production (rooted in science-based technology) in place, it allowed supernatural and spiritual elements to develop.

Charles Taylor, author of a mammoth text on the subject 3, traces secularity from deism, which was so influential in 17th and 18th centuries in Great Britain and France (as well as America). Rejecting the theistic position common to Judaism, Islam and much of Christianity, deism drew its concepts of God (his nature and existence) from reason and personal experience rather than revelation in the sacred scriptures or others’ testimony. In interpreting our secular age, Taylor moves from deism to focus upon what he calls the current age of authenticity, an individualistic era, in which people find their own way or do their own thing. Use of one’s own reason and experience to find God gives rise to a sense of intellectual autonomy. As deism leads to atheism, many abandon faith in God (at least in its traditional forms). In encountering what he describes as “galloping pluralism on the spiritual plane,” Taylor identifies a new thirst for something more than self-sufficiency and reason leading many to communal worship.

The context for understanding secularity, however, is in cultural, ethnic and religious pluralism. Consider the world-class city of London where 60% of its population are single-person households and 41% are aged between 20 and 44. A significant proportion of its immigrants are Indian, Arab, African, Pakistani and Bangladeshi. Migration needs to increase because Europe is aging fast and the European Union requires thirty-five million immigrants by 2025 if the 1995 levels of active work force are going to be maintained.

The city of Leicester in England has ethnic minorities which make up 36% of its population. 4. Leicester has the highest percentage of non-white residents of any town or city in Britain.  It has also the highest percentage of British residents of Indian origin (23.5 percent) and over 50% of schoolchildren of five years of age are non-white. Leicester is projected to become the first European city with a non-white majority by 2011.  Many of the immigrants came in the 1970s; they were Gujarati Hindus fleeing Amin’s regime in Uganda. There are also strong African, Caribbean and Chinese communities which contribute to Leicester’s economic, cultural and political life.  Leicester boasts of its diverse character and has become a model for multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-religious existence. There are at least twenty-one mosques, at least eighteen Hindu temples, six Sikh Gurdwaras, two Buddhist temples, two synagogues, one Jain temple, and a large number of Christian churches of all denominations.

The Leicester experience represents a post-war shift in religious identity and a new context in Europe. Grace Davie, sociologist of religion, describes it as “believing without belonging,” nominalism rather than secularism, where Europeans are not less religious but differently so. 5. “Mission is no longer about crossing the oceans, jungles and deserts, but about crossing the streets of the world’s cities.” 6. In this pluralist context, mission today requires a global perspective with globally minded congregations that work in partnership with multiple agencies, social services, churches and other religious groups. Modern cities such as Leicester are culturally, ethnically and religiously cosmopolitan. Its citizens adhere to different beliefs and convictions that are drawn from different traditions. The claims of the Bible have to compete with the Qu’ran, the Hindu Vedas, the writings of Buddha, the Jehovah Witnesses’ New World translation or the Book of Mormon. Claims for its authenticity have to be won in the marketplace of competing truth claims. “Although it is imperative that Christians argue for the probity and reliability of the Bible against unreasonable scepticism and misrepresentation, in the last analysis, living with consistency the good news of Jesus and the Kingdom of God, in the power of God’s Spirit, is the most cogent demonstration of the reality of what we declare to be true.” 7.

Religious pluralism, on one hand, describes the variety of religious groups and expressions. We are now dealing with increasing numbers of non-Christian faiths. It has been argued8, however, that the increase in Muslims is not only numerically significant but that from a historical perspective a non-Christian majority religious presence in Western Europe is novel. 9.Religious pluralism, on the other hand, can also refer to the breakdown of Christian faith as a whole through the decline of historic institutional churches and growth of non-institutional faiths. Alternatives present themselves in New Age and even witchcraft, which is significant because it points back to a reality in the Christian worldview that people thought had died out with the Enlightenment. Grace Davie suggests that religious pluralism offers two scenarios for the Christian church. Followers of secularization suggest that “growing religious pluralism necessarily undermines the plausibility of all forms of religious belief” whereas rational choice theorists (mostly in North America) “argue precisely the reverse: religious pluralism enables the religious needs of increasingly diverse populations to be more adequately met.” 10.

How are evangelical Christians to engage a religious pluralism that is about more options, lifestyles and preferences or promotion of religious diversity? The world port of Rotterdam contains a population that is largely non-Dutch. It is said that half of all babies born in the city have at least one parent who was not born in the Netherlands. Its ethnic and religious pluralism is illustrated in a guide to non-Dutch churches that details the stories of one hundred and thirteen churches that serve a majority of immigrants. 11. In 2007 the Roman Catholic Raboud University in Nijmegen calculated that “the savings which the Rotterdam municipality earns annually from all churches’ work amounts to around one hundred and twenty million euros.” 12. It is confidently estimated that the social value of the migrant (non-indigenous) churches amounts to some fifty-five million euros. In order to create a means of dialogue and distribution of services, the municipality instituted a new platform for ideological and religious organisations in Rotterdam in April 2008. Its objectives included the “stimulation of mutual dialogue on the need to participate in society.” 13. The birth of the platform arose through evangelical Christians networking in the City Hall. Evangelical and Pentecostal churches and parachurch ministries were among the first members of the council that involves representatives of different faiths, Christian denominations and none (humanists). The Protestant Churches involved stated their intention: “as a church to be visible and transparent in a dynamic community.” 14.  It seems that denominational agencies, parachurch groups or even local churches can no longer afford the luxury of working in isolation. The sheer complexities of the task, realities of globalization and limitations of resources all call for a renewed commitment to multi-level partnerships.

The sociologist of globalization, Robert Robertson, suggests “religious factors will almost certainly be intimately involved in those variegated strategies for relating individuals and national societies to the emerging global order.” 15. Religion appears to have a special role in reinforcing individual and community identity. For the most marginalised peoples, Gerrie ter Haar concluded that for African Christians in the Netherlands “their adherence to Christianity constitutes the most important element of their social identity.” 16. In this age of migration, religion has become a key factor in global change and the creation of transnational societies. Religious identity helps to deal with pain of being uprooted and alienated, and, in this way, religion has a key role in providing meaning and purpose. Faith can offer a basis for forming personal values and identity in an era when social-economic forces give rise to loss of roots, indifference to local space and lack of community. In the clash between religious forms of the West and the rest of the world, there is potential for new kinds of religious community. 17.

It has often been stated that Christianity in Europe is in decline. In 1900, 71% of the world’s Christians lived in Europe, but by 1960 it had dropped to 46% and by 1990 to 30%. Institutional churches that are declining are characterised as having: (1) large numbers of nominal Christians, (2) false security in apparent large numbers, (3) inability to change quickly, (4) inflexible structures, and (5) inhibition to experiment. 18.Despite this, a revival in worship has taken place in Evangelical and Renewalist churches. 19. Over the last fifty years the historic institutional churches in Europe have developed new and radical approaches to worship: Taize (France), Wild Goose (Scotland) and the Thomas Mass (Finland). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a Croatian pastor reflected on the role of the historic institutional churches:

The local church in much of Europe is like a crippled man. We must not turn in             disgust and abandon this hurting man. We also must not criticise him for how he got himself in this position, or walk around him to get our tasks done. We must come alongside him and help him to walk straight and powerfully. Indeed, this man could bring great hope to his people if first healed and directed onward!” 20.

The contours of the religious map of Europe is not so much being withdrawn as being re-drawn. Christian and Evangelical identity is being shaped by the secular (including new religious forms) missional context.

In Eastern Europe, the Orthodox Church in Romania, Russia and Greece is facing a new pluralism of Christian presence and secularization in society. In the Greek port of Piraeus (near Athens) and in the city of Vollos to the north, students cleaned up the beaches with black bin-liners. In 2003 Evangelical and Orthodox leaders worked together to give them out to Greek tourists with an environmental message and portions of the New Testament in modern Greek.

In Southern Europe, governments of nations previously considered Roman Catholic are separating themselves from former sympathies. In a city on the north side of Lisbon, the newly elected mayor by-passed the traditional priest and visited an Assemblies of God church containing many migrants to seek a blessing from the evangelical pastor. The church had grown from thirty to three hundred but the real reason for the visit was that the municipality knew this new church for its holistic care for drug-addicts and the elderly. It was conservatively estimated that of the 75% who go back into society from their rehabilitation units, not only do more than 50% join a church but more than 25% find regular employment.

In Western Europe, in the centre of Antwerp, a Dutch couple worked with Turkish young people, and as a result the ‘Bible-house’ has become the spiritual home for a number of Muslim families originating from southern Turkey. Young men who had gotten into trouble asked the Dutch evangelist rather than the imam to visit them in prison. Jaap and Ina Hansum recognized the need for loving personal witness rather than waging personal war.

In Central Europe, churches in atheistic societies are bearing witness to the Gospel through community building. The soul-less housing blocks in Eastern Europe pose an enormous missionary challenge and what may be the largest housing estate in Europe is four metro-stops long in the south of Prague. One pastor there has had the joy of building a new church in the grounds of an asylum-seekers’ centre. The invitation to do so came from its atheist director who was moved by how much better her children performed after regular visits from members of the church.

In Northern Europe, when the Iron Curtain came down in 1990 a new synergy took place in Berlin when Christian ministries on the two sides of the wall (care for elderly in the East and addiction ministry in the West) came together. Moreover their five hundred employees make up the largest City Mission in Europe, with their sixteen churches acting as mission or preaching stations across a metropolis of four million people (many of whom are from Eastern Europe, Turkey and Asia). The City Mission owns three hotels in the city, is seeking to reach German professionals who are not already confessing Christians, and also has programmes with Turkish and Arabic peoples, in so doing bearing witness to the love of Christ with people of other faiths.

Do these and our own stories of mission adequately address the secular age of 2010? The Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization’s consultation 21. in Pattaya, Thailand, stated: “We as European Christians must:

  1. Recover prayer in personal and corporate life.
  2. Clarify the goal and message of large-city evangelism.
  3. Promote biblical and practical inter-church co-operation, and co-operation between church and parachurch groups.
  4. Reverse Christian defeatism by the renewal of stagnant churches and by calling Christians back to the cities.
  5. Restore a family koinonia atmosphere in the urban church.
  6. Regain credibility for the message through identification with, and response to, people’s social and intellectual needs.
  7. Research the city: hidden peoples, existing ministries, and the forces that shape it – historical and current, especially the place and role of mass media.
  8. Plan for the awakening by training city workers, both for their own city and other regions; and by anticipating new church and service group forms, planting them where needed.
  9. Permeate all city structures, for the transformation of people and structures of society.”

Thirty years after Pattaya 1980 we may want to reaffirm some of these calls but also highlight other approaches – such as emerging church and relational strategies. Europe’s church history of violence should also not be forgotten as evangelical Christians seek to call the church back to humility, integrity and simplicity. The challenge of secularity is to make the case for the truth of Christ in societies that are pluralistic and globalized and to build the peace of Christ in societies that are broken and divided. Evangelical Christians, who need to critically engage rather than to escape the challenge of this secular age, are empowered for this by the astonishing announcement that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.” 22.

© The Lausanne Movement 2010  

  1. Glenn Smith, Thinking after… acting again: God’s global urban mission in an era of the autonomous self and globalization, 3.
  2. These distinctive eras were described by Craig van Gelder “Secularization and the City: Christian Witness in Secular Urban Cultures”, in Discipling the City, Roger Greenaway, ed., 1992.
  3. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, London, Belknap, 2007.
  4. According to Alistair Brown, principal of Northern Baptist Seminary in Chicago, and also of the British Mission Society, which was founded by William Carey, himself a pastor from Leicester.
  5. Grace Davie, Europe: The Exceptional Case, 19; Religion in Britain since 1945, 69f.
  6. Ray Bakke, A Theology as Big as the City, 13.
  7. J. Andrew Kirk, Mission under Scrutiny, 88.
  8. Philip Jenkins, God’s Continent, 117.
  9. “If Western Europe’s 15 million Muslims represented a single nation, they would be the sixth largest country of the European union, more populous than Belgium.” Ibid., 115.
  10. Grace Davie, Europe: The Exceptional Case, 15.
  11. Robert Calvert, Gids van Christelijke Gemeenschappen in Rotterdam, 2007; it conservatively estimated one hundred and forty migrant churches.
  12. Trouw de Verdieping, 19 July 2008, 5.
  13. “Uitnoding Oprichtingsbijeenkomst”, Platform van Levensbeschouwelijke en Religieuze organisaties in Rotterdam, 9 April 2008, Stadhuis Rotterdam.
  14. Policy Plan 2009-2012, Protestant Churches (PKN) Rotterdam, GCW Diaconal Steering Group, 2009.
  15. William R. Garrett, “Thinking Religion in the Global Circumstance: A Critique of Roland Robertson’s Globalization Theory”, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 31 (1992), 301; quoted in A Global Faith – essays on Evangelicalism and Globalization, M. Hutchinson and O. Kalu, eds.; Sydney, Centre for the study of Australian Christianity, 1998, 30-31.
  16. Gerrie ter Haar, “The African diaspora in Europe – some important themes and issues”, in Strangers and Sojourners, Leuven, 1998, 45.
  17. In his study of Hindu faith communities in Europe, Martin Baumann recognises that “in the mutual perception of both other faith communities and European secular society, a growing self-awareness of one’s religious belonging is apparent” (Baumann, ibid., 118). Grace Davie described new forms of religion as ‘believing without belonging’ and discerned the development of religious practice outside institutional forms. Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging, Oxford, Blackwell, 1994.
  18. Peter Brierley, Future Church.
  19. The publication of Mission Praise is one of many signs of a new thirst to express spiritual desire and experience.
  20. Stevo Dereta in Rijeka
  21. ‘Reaching Large Cities’ in June 1980
  22. 2 Corinthians 5:19