As a teen in the eighties, I thought God was calling me to missions. God had eclipsed everything else before my eyes, so I surrendered and prayed, “What do you want me to do with my life?” Then a single missionary woman with big hair and a Colgate-commercial smile spoke at my family’s Methodist church. As a deep thinker who didn’t trust people who perpetually smiled, I wondered if I had misunderstood God’s call. I started a club to welcome international students to my high school, befriended a girl from a family of Cambodian refugees, and became enthralled by Dostoevsky in English class.
None of my classmates liked the psychological Russian literature, but I felt I had entered a world I belonged to, a world I wanted to interact with and live in as a messenger of God’s potent, loving, eternal prescription for people’s suffering and pain. Turns out the vast, mysterious Soviet Union that had loomed large for as long as I could remember ended and missionaries flooded in. However, very few stayed. So my Trotsky-looking husband, who shares the same heart and sense of calling, and I moved to Ukraine with our baby daughter.
During its shambolic infancy, Ukrainians, hungry for spirituality and truth, readily prayed to receive Christ when we ministered openly on the streets and in public squares. They treasured their gift, a New Testament, like a bar of gold since getting their hands on a Bible was previously almost impossible. In the evenings during a week of outreach, we preached the Gospel at the Dominican Church, which was the former museum of religion and atheism during Soviet times. The inscription on the church, Soli Deo Honor et Gloria, became reality once again as we exalted God with honor and glory to all who came. We were thrilled to be a part of this amazing season of freedom and harvest.
Despite persecution, the underground church in Ukraine was robust. Many Christians we met were heroes of the faith whose relatives had been imprisoned. Worship in churches was reminiscent of African American communities at the end of slavery. The songs, sung in minor chords, were mixed with tears and joy. As our church formed and we began to disciple people, we learned the reasons for the tears. Stories of pain poured out of people’s souls. Several times during prayer meetings, women who were believers during Soviet times wept with deep regret for their children who grew up with little to no knowledge of God. Out of fear, many did not teach their children the Bible, pray, or share their faith.
As a church we embraced the mission to reach the next generation.
Then we hit a wall. During an outreach in a region of Soviet-built, Lego-like high-rises, three hundred young people stood in an auditorium to commit their lives to Christ. The day before our team befriended groups of students outside the school where we held our evening meeting. The director of the school liked us, so he announced our meeting to the students. My husband, Mike, preached the Gospel with conviction and we were blown away by the students’ spiritual hunger and readiness to accept the Gospel. But within days a powerful person in the region shut us down. The only place willing to rent a room to us was in a remote area without heat during sub-zero winter temperatures. With heavy hearts, we entrusted the precious young people to God and walked away.
Undaunted, we became adept at finding open doors and developed methods, such as life coaching, to engage young people. In recent years, young people have been increasingly open to discussions about God and spirituality as well as caring mentoring as they face uncertainty in a destabilized world. After years of missionaries serving in Ukraine, our seven churches are now all led by Ukrainians. Their perspectives and influence will take the churches further than we can go. Among their ministries, they have started rehabilitation centers to aid the epidemic number of drug addicts and alcoholics and provided humanitarian and spiritual aid to the poor in the Carpathian Mountain villages.
Yet Europe still desperately needs for missionaries to answer the call.
Panning out to broader Europe, the institutional church is in decline, functioning only as a veneer with a weak impact on culture. The 2012 Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life shows that seventy-five percent of Europeans call themselves Christians, but according to another study, only around four percent follow Jesus and demonstrate a concern about the people around them following Jesus. And some researchers project that by the year 2050 one in every five Europeans will be Muslim. Since the majority of Europeans have never heard the Gospel explained in a relevant way, hope lies in Christians who will live out their faith incarnationally and present compelling reasons for their faith.
Ed Stetzer, Caleb Crider and Larry McCrary outlined five imperatives for church planting in Europe from observing successful trends, stating:
“We believe that Europe is one of the most strategic places in the world at this moment for evangelism. While there are glimmers of hope in Europe, by and large the national churches have declined so much that they no longer have the sending power that they once possessed. Therefore, the lost populations of Europe need people from other parts of the world to come and offer them the hope of the gospel in a relevant way.”
Church planting must:
1. Be missional/incarnational
Bold Gospel presentation to people in whom you are socially and spiritually invested.
2. Value tribes
These existing social circles are churches waiting to happen.
3. Be indigenous
As long as it is a foreign faith, church, and Gospel, it will not be adopted in any influential sort of way. Leadership must be (at least, in part) local and tribal.
4. Be Spirit led
Even our very best and innovative strategies are worthless if we’re not walking in step-by-step obedience to His Word and Spirit.
5. Have a mindset to reproduce
If a new church will think about how to reproduce itself from the onset and put that in their strategy, then we will see churches move toward multiplication.
(Why Europe? by Stetzer, Crider and McCrary)