"Seeking the Absentee": A European Perspective on Evangelism in the Wake of a Feral God

Article excerpt

Abstract Europe's religious "demise" is well reported and often lamented in missionary circles. This article aims to offer a contrary perspective using the common approach of evangelism: "double listening". The task is to listen to our culture and our text in conversation and to discover what the text is saying afresh to our needs and values. It is, however, largely expected that this double listening will yield itself to the means by which Christ can change and counter culture. But what if our double listening reveals the deafness of evangelism to the voice of Christ in our culture? This paper aims to explore the widespread religious experience in Europe of God's absence, and how if prompts us to re-examine the stories of Jesus and the rhetoric we use to describe Europe's religious life. It contends that much evangelism in Europe is too inhospitable or unsophisticated to see this absence as anything other than something we should rush to fill with the latest model of our reliable 24/7 god. However, it might be leading us to acknowledge something about the life of faith that Jesus seems to offer in much of his teaching. Europe's resistance to organized religion is painful to experience, but it might be inviting us into afresh conversion to what God is doing beyond our walls. If so, evangelism will have to learn afresh humility as well as to provide the fresh energy to discover and partner God there.

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   How shall we love you, holy, hidden Being
   Unless we love the world which you have made?
   O give us surer love for better seeing
   Your word made flesh and in a manger laid
   Your kingdom come, O Lord, your will be done.
   Laurence Housmanl (1)

There is a great deal of discussion of the nature and future of religious faith in Europe, most of it despairing. As religious faith has been absented from the public space, so the public have absented themselves from the religious space. European churches are commonly characterized as places of decline, a failure in the Christian enterprise of mission and evangelism that, until a few generations ago, it championed and inspired. Some discussions are giving way to a more sophisticated appreciation of what is taking place in Europe, and I will offer some of this complexity as this article unfolds. Our changed context is also inspiring some churches and Christian movements to express afresh their faith and witness and engage with those we've lost and those we've never known. A great deal of material is being published about strategies for seeking such absentees, material that offers advice on how we might better communicate the timeless truths of the faith to this postmodern generation. I am not concerned here to explore these absentees. There is a bigger fish to fry.

There is an increasing recognition that people in Europe are, in their own terms, "spiritual", not religious. In other words they believe there is a God; they have various methods and mechanisms to draw near to God when they need. But this is not a process that needs religious supervision. It does not require a formal shape and expression through the good offices of the church. Thus, there are those who experience God without the church. At the same time, there are also those who don't experience God at all. The experience of the absence of God is still one of the most powerful religious experiences of our day. (2) The church likes to think it can charm away such an experience given the chance and the resources. The church abhors the experience of the absence of God, seeing it as a vacuum evangelism must fill, a void faith can span. However, I am not convinced of this, and wonder if the absence of God is something we are being taught to honour as Jesus seems to have done. Christianity's approach to evangelism is to claim to offer a consistent, predictable religious experience and the authority to define and normalize such experience, selling God like so much shampoo. …

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