Yet this year alone, roughly 30 percent of our agency’s applicants have applied to serve not in the remote, least-reached parts of the world but throughout the developed continent of Europe.
As I speak to the pastors of these applicants, I sometimes encounter hesitancy to the idea of sending missionaries into first-world countries where the gospel has had a strong historical presence. Meanwhile, it is a documented phenomenon that the global gravitational center of world Christianity is corkscrewing southeast for the first time in church history.
Since many European countries are statistically considered “reached”—that is, largely populated by people groups of which more than two percent are professing evangelical and five percent nominal Christian—why should we send missionaries to these fields?
Shouldn’t we direct our resources elsewhere? Not so—here’s why.
1. Europe is minimally-reached.
Statistics never tell the full story. While some statistics would purport that about 77 percent of Europe is “reached,” the actual number of professing evangelicals mirrors those of the least-reached contexts in the 10/40 Window. Consider the 1 percent in France, 0.5 percent in Austria, 0.3 percent in Poland, and 0.1 percent in Slovenia.
These numbers indicate the type of spiritual drought you’d expect in the Islamic Sahara, not in the former cradle of Christendom. Although we often assume that European culture is Christianized, this is simply not the case.
The term “unreached” is inherently limited and needs redefinition, but on its face it remains a helpful benchmark to measure the remainder of the church’s task.
2. Europe offers unusual access to displaced peoples.
My friend Darren Carlson recently released a documentary chronicling the fantastic accounts of conversions among Syrian and Libyan refugees in Athens, Greece. The stories of these refugees, like so many others documented throughout Western media in the past several years, push our limits of comprehension of human suffering.
Warfare, disease, and death are common refrains throughout these displacement accounts.
Yet so many of these stories are stages upon which the biblical drama of God’s sovereignty through suffering is constantly enacted: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20).
While religious freedom has certainly seen better days in Europe, it is still significantly easier to openly practice conversionary evangelism there than in virtually any majority-Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist context.
God is using tragic, chaotic geopolitical events to bring unreached, unengaged people groups into contact with the missional, hospitable churches who would have never otherwise had access to the gospel. We would be foolish not to make engaging displaced peoples a key component of our mission strategy for Europe.
3. Church restoration ministries remain vital and fruitful.
Since the church is at the crux of the gospel and God’s plan for this present age (cf. Ephesians 3:10), church multiplication is likewise at the crux of missions.
Oftentimes we’re guilty of reducing this to simply planting churches, but church restoration is a vital ministry as well—with countless opportunities throughout the United Kingdom and the European continent both Eastern and Western. While numerous sanctuaries are being barred up, bought up, and repurposed into everything from pubs to mosques, it would be foolish for us to not also retool them into meeting spaces for real, revived congregations.
This work may not seem promising, but we can be assured that God is indeed moving powerfully. In Italy—a place where, for centuries, Protestant mission has gone to die—our agency’s teams are seeing their first conversions and baptisms in their a budding, young church plant. I’ve seen the baptisms on video, and they’re beautiful. God isn’t done drawing people to himself, even among populations that have historically “had” the gospel.
Much like our own churches in North America, evangelical churches throughout Europe need to be cajoled into active outreach, missional living, intentional hospitality, and bold gospel proclamation. The postmodern cultural climate of many European nations makes this difficult, but it is no greater than the threat posed by the climate of our own hearts.
Europe does not just need brand-new, pioneering church planters to start new works where Christians have been present for centuries; it needs those with hearts of partnership and service to come alongside national churches and revitalize outreach efforts, equip national believers for the work of ministry, and stir tired pastors with a vision to engage their own contexts with the gospel.
Whether we are gripped by the sheer, statistical lostness of most European countries, awed by the opportunities to reach migrant populations, or inspired by the challenge of revitalizing dying congregations, let us recognize that Europe still needs missionaries—just not for the reasons you may think.