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The Prophetic Ministry of the Church in View of the New Challenges in Europe - Johannes Aagaard

The chairman of the Dialog Center International takes a close look at the present situation of the Christian Church in Europe - and at the near future

by Dr. Theol. Johannes Aagaard


The new challenges within Europe are many, but maybe the challenges to Europe from the outside are even greater in number. At any rate they are more serious. Europe as a historical fact is not much more than 500 years old. Europe as an idea came into existence after the Muslims conquered Konstantinopel in the 15th century and threatened to take over the whole of Europe up till the end of the 17th century. Thus from the beginning and until this day Islam has been an inevitable partner for Europe and a continuing challenge to her.

But that is not the subject of this article. I want to focus on the challenge to Europe by the hordes of new religious movements which are now invading Europe – especially Eastern Europe these months.

But first I would like to pick up the other part of my theme: “the prophetic ministry of the Church”. For what does that mean today?

The royal ministry is the ministry of the king to rule and decide in matters of his kingdom. The royal ministry to which we as Christians are baptized (1. Peter 2,9) means the obligation to turn the secular system of ruling upside down, so that the weakest are the strongest and the servant is the greatest (Mark 10,42f).

The priestly ministry is connected with the celebration of the sacrificial worship and the proclamation of God’s will and God’s glory.

The prophetic ministry is a controversial ministry, both in relation to kings and priests. First of all it is a ministry of the laity, but as a genuine part of the people of God priests and kings are also laity, laos tou theou!

Understood like this the challenges in and to Europe have to be applied to the controversial prophetic ministry of the laity within the Church – and outside the Church, for by nature the laity cannot be kept within the Church. The laity is always on the move beyond the frontiers of the churches, and that is how it has to be.

What specific challenges does the prophetic ministry meet in today’s Europe?

The weakness of the churches are well-known facts. A virtual exodus is happening from many of the traditionally strong and dominating churches. And in nearly all churches the absence of youth is a serious threat to the future.


Changing attitudes in Europe

European ethical and religious attitudes are changing rapidly. The European value-evaluations from 1981 and from 1991 speak clearly about this and should be studied in all churches.

One of the most interesting points is the weak position of atheism! There are very few atheists left in Europe. People believe in some god, whoever that is! There is also a high rate of religious beliefs, not least those which are labelled “superstition” by the theologians.

Most important is the expanding beliefs in reincarnation, normally held by one quarter up till one third of the people asked. That is of real importance to churches where faith in resurrection is weak and often bewildered.

Today’s religious revival in Europe must come as a surprise for those who believed in secularisation as the finito to religiosity. Followers of Bonhoeffer such as Harvey Cox have all gone wrong. Christianity without religion tends to become religion without Christianity. Religion is there as never before in all variations and for all tastes. We have entered into a religious supermarket, where everything possible and impossible is available.


New religiosity:

a child of secularisation

But that has not meant the end of secularisation! The fact is that the new religiosity seems to be the child of secularisation. The more secularized a country is – such as Denmark – the more new religiosity will be found. That has been proven by sociological research. And it seems to be supported by the European Value-evaluation. The churches do not grow much, but apart from that beliefs have a great time. All sorts of beliefs.

The new religious development is not easily dealt with, and the reason why the churches fail to respond to it is obvious: It is fundamentally an anti-Christian development. And how can Christians relate to anti-Christian movements easily and quickly?

What is needed in all churches is a renewal of their prophetic ministry in such a radical way that a new language, a new set of symbols, a new life-style have to be learned and understood, but not accepted!

Not all evangelism is mission. The church’s evangelizing ministry has missionary outreach as an important part. Mission seen as the apostolate which it continues has to do with crossing frontiers of language, symbolism, life-style, and, if ever, this is necessary in Europe at the end of this millenium. Large masses of people live and speak in ways which are incomprehensible for traditional congregations and theologians and pastors and bishops – and vice versa. These masses do in fact not understand what is being said within the walls of the churches.


New terms, new concepts

Most pastors in the Lutheran tradition speak out against self-justification, but the concept of self has changed meaning. To most people “self” is the divine part of the individual, the very part of me which is the agent of liberation and growth – similar to the meaning of self in “self-understanding”.

Likewise most pastors speak about the law in ways which simply do not ring anymore. “The law” in today’s world is karma, a modern re-dressing of the old oriental “cycle of necessity”, and the Christian understanding of faith and grace have to consider the reality of “karmic consciousness” in the minds of modern people. Karma is taken to be the only reasonable answer to the injustice of life.

Consciousness is a key word in many people’s interpretation, especially “cosmic consciousness”. Conscience is out, consciousness is in. Conscience is not only out, it is rejected, for it distinguishes between good and bad, right and wrong, and all such dualities are nothing but proofs of a low consciousness. You have to go beyond all dualities in order to reach the absolute oneness with the divine, where your own self becomes divine and is made immortal.

The eschatological dilemma of the traditional churches is a well-known fact. Theology in general has become hooked to the theory of “the parousia which never came”. And in the Christian teaching the ideas of the future are bleak. Few can speak honestly about the resurrection of the dead.

The alternative to resurrection has entered the stage in the form of samsara, i.e. reinkarnation. This theory (which connects with karma as the ultimate causality), seems to give the empty future a meaning and to solve the problem of cosmic justice. We cannot over-estimate the importance of this change of eschatology from a Christian to a Hindu perspective. Soteriology cannot possibly be communicated without cosmology. This could well be the key to our present dilemma in Christian communication.


Fundamentalist and

syncretist reactions

These examples are just a few of many possible examples of our dilemma in present day Europe. But what are the reactions to this dilemma?

Two seemingly opposite movements, fundamentalism and syncretism, dominate the present reaction. The fundamentalist movements within all religions of the modern world are probably best understood as an attempt to get back into the old world before secularisation and modernisation. That old world was a corpus, be it Christianum, Islamicum, Hindu or Buddhist or Jewish. Everything was at its right place, or so it seemed at any rate.

It is however characteristic that the fundamentalist, regressive movements are also legalistic and often apocalyptic. A “new age” is ahead, and it will bring the salvation of my particular group, and the rest of the world will perish. You better join us in time! That is the orientation of many fundamentalist movements. This is however an attitude which is not foreign for many syncretistic movements. Seemingly they are the opposite of fundamentalism, but that is in fact a doubtfull proposition.

For instance, in Scandinavia a fundamentalist group named “The Word of Life” (Livets Ord) actually has something in common with traditional New Age religiosity. Both New Age and The Word of Life derive from the Boston-based “New Thought” from the end of the 19th century, with its strange mixture of transcendentalism, Occultism, Theosophy and old Buddhism and Hinduism, all put on the top of old Swedenborgianism.

What matters in both cases is the belief in a select group with a charismatic master and with a profiled life-style – all turned against the “massa perditionis”, i.e. the masses of lost people who belong to the old world, to the system.

New Age movements and fundamentalist groups both tend to function as religious multi-nationals. They are by definition trans-national. They shift staff and devoted followers from country to country and thus they meet a general need for mobility and internationality, felt by today’s youngsters.


The need for Ecumenism

The churches are to some degree opening up, but the situation of the ecumenical movement is not at all gladdening. It is a sad fact that the happy days of the fifties when ecumenism began and the inspiring revolts of the sixties have both ended up in a virtual stagnation, in which the term “ecumenical” is not at all able to carry the sense of expectation it used to.

The sad thing is that we need this ecumenical dimension more than ever, for “the Christian world” is becoming more and more dominated by sectarianism and lack of cooperation, while the new religious movements, sects and cults manifest an efficient networks all over the world.


The challenge of

Europe to the churches

Much more could be mentioned as characteristic of the new religious challenges in Europe today. Let us see in what way this is a real challenge to the prophetic ministry of our churches.

Let me start from where we ended, with the need for operating internationally. All European universities will soon feel the necessity for all students to study half a year or one year – and often more than that – in other countries even in order to get a masters degree.

We Europeans normally do not take Europe seriously in the context of church-life. In the future we shall have to do exactly that. National churches may for a time have a sort of come-back due to the come-back of nationalism, but this will pass away. It is part of the past, not really a part of the future.

Already now hundreds of thousands of students and other young people – and also senior people – go by Interrail all over Europe. This is a very important sort of periodical migration. During their travels they carry all sorts of guide books “to Planet Earth” or similar titles, but hardly ever a guide to the Christian spiritual centers of Europe, where they can live for a few days and find inspiration. The Taizé Community is one such place, but even that is not advertized effectively. Lots of “interraillers” pass by Taizé, unknowingly.


The challenge of Asia

The same holds true in Asia. Hordes of youngsters “on the road” go to Hindu and Buddhist and Sikh temples. They are offered hospitality and are taken into the religious hospitality of the place. That may also happen in Christian congregations, but only rarely. Most of the travellers in Asia will later swear that there are no Christians in Asia, for they never saw any.

How come that we as Christians are so unimaginative that we cannot deal with this problem, which has been there now for at least one generation?

On their way these “pilgrims” – call them “tourists” if you prefer, but the difference is normally not important – these travellers meet others who engage them in religiously challenging relations.

The Dialog Center International has now for ten years participated in the dialogue in Asia by means of specially trained volunteers, sent out to be on the road with the travellers. We have important experiences of the prophetic ministry of the laity in this connection.

We have sent out about 20 such volunteers each year, but we could well double that number and still manage the project, if only the churches in cooperation with the confessional world-bodies would take up this as part of a common strategy. I write this as a concrete proposal to be considered.


A communications network

One of the major problems with the new religious scene is the abundance of movements. Who can cope with this multiplicity? But in fact this is not so difficult as it seems.

We have in Aarhus, Denmark, a center for communication on new religious movements, and it is normally possible to get new information and data from this center, which is part of the library of the Theological Faculty at the University of Aarhus, Denmark.

The telefax system makes it possible for us to keep in contact so that we can normally get correct information on most relevant issues in no time.

Correct information is the basis for efficient communication, and that is much needed in the Europe of the coming years. We are entering into a communication-community, in which correct data will be invaluable. We can only secure such data by collecting and administering them together. Communication without documentation is impossible, but with the best documentation we can in fact cope with the situation.


A European Scool for Religion and Dialog

Communication takes us to education. We must reconsider this relation in the light of the European situation. That is why we want to point to the need for such an institution as the European School for Religion and Dialog, run on an international and inter-confessional basis, thus uniting Christians in an attempt to communicate the right data on the basis of efficient documentation and with spiritual formation as the dimension of all teaching activities.

The real problem today is to recognize the hard facts before us. Unless we know the situation and take it ad notam, nothing will succeed. Correct analysis is the condition for a workable interpretation and planning.

We are in the present situation in Europe in need of constant and careful analysis of the changing situation. We could have it within the Lutheran World Federation, which can also give us the setting for the consistent actions needed today.

There was a time when I questioned the necessity of the confessional world-bodies. But I have changed my mind. I do not think that LWF is necessary in order to keep us on the Lutheran track. But LWF is necessary in order to make us a world-community which can fulfil the ministry we have got as our responsibility.

Without the LWF the Lutheran churches would be tempted to live in even greater isolation than they do now.