21,000 people packed into Manchester Arena and cheered as Ariana Grande sang the final notes of Dangerous Woman, the title track on her multi-platinum album and the name of her worldwide tour. Outside the arena, Salman Ramadan Abedi waited for the streams of people to exit before he detonated an IED packed with nuts, bolts, and shrapnel. The explosion killed 22 and injured over a hundred others, some critically. The youngest of the dead was an 8 year-old girl. Soon after, ISIS claimed responsibility. 14 conspirators were arrested for their association to the bombing. The attack would be added to a long list of others that have scarred Europe over the past few years.
Like people all over the world, I woke up and scrolled through the news on my phone. My initial reaction went something like this: Europe is a mess.
Our missions team from Austin Ridge was staying in Poland with a Christian missionary family in a quiet neighborhood outside Poznan. We had traveled to three very distinct cities in Europe – Marseille (France), Mosciano Sant’Angelo (Italy), and Poznan (Poland) – to meet with missionaries supported by our church and to gain a better understanding of their challenges. At breakfast, we spoke about the bombing for a few minutes before casually moving on to other topics. We had plans to visit an old church in the town square that is now a tourist attraction.
Ruins and reality.
In my view, this is the central component to understanding modern Europe. The cities pay homage to the ruins of a former age and capitalize on the nostalgia of a culture that no longer exists. The same is true spiritually. Young Muslims and Catholics pay homage to the ruins of a religion that is imbedded in their identity, but their reality and lifestyle tells a different story.
We have to meet the people of the world in their reality, not in their ruins.
We hope that this series of posts provides a fair, but honest, takeaway from our time with the missionaries in Europe. Four themes dominated our conversations and thoughts while traveling through Europe, which will be woven throughout the series.
1. Immigrants and refugees are creating enormous challenges and putting stress on traditional European culture. As Christians we have to view this as an opportunity. From this side of the world, our instincts might be to say, “Europe has changed,” or “Europe is dangerous,” or “Europe is a mess.” And maybe that’s true in some regard, but it also doesn’t come close to telling the whole story. That mindset closes the door on the overwhelming beauty of the people in Europe, ignores their desire for truth in a world that has fed them lies, and turns a blind eye to how God is at work among unreached populations. We have to choose to remain gospel-centered as opposed to politically-centered. To share the gospel with Syrians, Algerians and Libyans was until recently extraordinarily difficult, complicated, and dangerous. Now, these people groups live in huge numbers just blocks from the most famous sights in Europe.
2. Young people in Europe (20s-30s), whether Catholic, Muslim, or anything else, aren’t much different than young people everywhere else in the world. Missionaries are struggling to connect with this demographic. They have the same desires and interests, and are influenced in the same ways. The vast majority of young people are non-practicing, and ascribe to the religion because it is part of their inherited identity, not part of their core belief system. Islam and Catholicism don’t shape the decisions they make or their moral compass. If you had to name the religion they actually practice, it would be social networking or consumerism. However, they are craving substance and truth in their lives. In my opinion, they haven’t rejected the truth of the gospel, but they have resoundingly rejected how the gospel has been sold to them. Like any generalization, there are glaring exceptions. The Manchester bomber was 22, for instance, and certainly there are many thousands of young people in Europe who are faithful to their religion. But this is the overwhelming story we heard everywhere we visited, and what we witnessed.
3. There is not so much a lack of resources as there is a lack of talent operating in Europe. This isn’t a referendum on the missionaries we visited, but a call for more believers to become engaged with their unique gifts. Collaboration is the only way to deliver excellence, and, because of Western media, movies, and advertising, young people ignore anything short of excellence. The standard for engagement is always being raised. Traditional missionaries are struggling (if not outright failing) to connect with the young demographic, even though they know that this demographic is the most important key to reaching Europe. A new approach is essential. Missionaries, sometimes older and distanced from popular culture, have to operate with a one-man-show approach. They have to market events, when they aren’t marketers. They have to design or tell stories or put on events, when their strength could be something entirely different. I may be biased (Ok, I’m definitely biased), but I believe we need to lead with high-quality art, design, and story, which is the language of the desired generation. We certainly still need traditional missionary gifts - teaching, evangelizing - but a more holistic approach is needed.
4. Food is the most important connection point between cultures and generations. And everyone wanted to feed us.
Now, let’s go to Marseille.
(The section about Marseille will post next week.)