When you think of mission work, what comes to mind probably isn’t someone in France discussing theology with a neighbor over cappuccinos. But the reality is, Europe critically needs more Christian missionaries to make disciples.
There are several reasons we leave Europe off the map when we think of spreading the gospel “to the ends of the earth.” The most glaring one being that the gospel has already been spread there.
In the New Testament, we read about the gospel’s early adoption in Europe through Paul’s letters to the church in modern-day Greece, Italy and Turkey. Marble statues, massive cathedrals and stained glass windows stand as monuments to a fully-Christianized continent.
But today, those cathedral halls are filled more often by tourists than parishioners.
As gospel devotion dwindles, there is a need for more missionaries to partner with the remaining church in Europe.
Many Christian Traditions But Few Disciples
According to Operation World, most Europeans identify with the Christian tradition (71.4%), but only a marginal number consider themselves to be evangelical Christians (2.5%). The majority of European Christians practice Catholicism or Orthodoxy.
Despite the Christianized culture, missionaries say the practice of faith for most Europeans is a matter of public ritual, not private devotion.
“People would say they’re Orthodox,” says Amanda Keeney, a TEAM worker in Ukraine, “but when you ask them what that means to them, they often answer that they attend church on Easter and that they were baptized as a child, and that’s it.
“They don’t see their need to be saved and often account for good works as enough to get to heaven.”
Outside of corporate traditions, workers say it is uncommon for Europeans to interact with Scripture.
“Most Italians have never personally read the Bible,” says Steve Thompson, a long-term worker in Italy. “It has been discouraged for centuries by the traditional church, and so for them, it is a closed book.”
The role of the missionary, then, is to invite Europeans into a world previously closed to them.
“People here need to know Jesus as he really is from what he really did and said, not secondhand from traditions that most people don’t understand,” Amanda says. “They need to see how we don’t need to live in fear of God because of our deeds. But in Christ, we can draw near to God and know him.”
Rising Religious Apathy
Europeans are increasingly rejecting faith altogether. According to the Pew Research Center, 18 percent of all Europeans are atheists, agnostics or do not identify with a particular religion at all. This number is predicted to grow.
Jennifer Hylton’s experience as a missionary in France echoes this statistic: “I’ve met a lot of non-Christians who believe that either religion is the biggest problem of the world and the best solution is for everyone to abandon religion, or those who believe simply that there is no God.”
She says one of the biggest roadblocks she faces in ministry is a general belief that we don’t need a savior. “This mindset often leaves people disinterested in discussing the gospel because with no need for a savior, what’s the point in discussing sin or anything else?”
Overcoming this apathy is not formulaic or fast. Becky Rogerson, a TEAM worker in Italy says indifference is softened through relationship. “As people see genuine love and get to see how we handle hardships, they are more likely to want to know what makes the difference.”
Too Few Evangelical Churches
Despite these cultural realities, the evangelical church is growing in Europe, but there are too few churches to serve the region.
“Everywhere I have gone across France, I have met believers who travel an hour or more to get to the nearest protestant evangelical church on Sundays,” Jennifer says.
In Italy, TEAM worker Tommy Annest reports there is only one evangelical church for every 50,000 people. “There are thousands of cities, towns and smaller municipalities in Italy that, as far as we know, have no active body witnessing to the gospel.”
Church planting ministries around the continent are committed to changing these statistics.
“We desperately need more people to be willing to live in these communities, share the gospel, disciple young believers … and equip the [Christians] here in France to lead their churches,” Jennifer says.
Ultimately, workers like Steve Thompson in Italy hope to equip more national leaders to evangelize and lead church planting efforts.
“We’re committed to this,” Steve Thompson says, “but we need more full-time workers to help.”
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