Is there hope for the small church? Increasingly, churches of all sizes are struggling in North America as attendance declines, older churches struggle to keep their doors open, and young people feel disillusioned with organized religion. While this is coming as a shock to many in the United States, this has long been the case in Europe, the heart of secularism where most churches are lucky to have 20 people. Is the situation hopeless? Must churches close their doors and give up? In Europe, the Church of God is experiencing a renaissance as small churches with severe challenges are turning a corner and getting new life. What is happening?
When Three Worlds was started in 2010, our Three Worlds team had a vision of XZ Berlin--a joint-minstry venture between the German Church of God and Global Missions-- becoming "the Silicon Valley of the Church of God:" a hub of innovation and experimentation for the Church of God. In the same way that San Jose and its suburbs in the Bay Area are a place where risks are taken and innovative ideas are valued without fear of failure, we wondered if Berlin could be the heart of our efforts to help the Church engage the 21st Century. Four years later and that "Silicon Valley" ethos is spreading throughout the Church of God in Europe as churches realize that when churches are small, they have to be willing to try new things and take risks.
The Paris Church of God (Eglise de Dieu) meets in an ornate 18th Century church just down the street from Notre Dame. The sanctuary can seat 500 people, but a typical Sunday may only have 20 people. What the visitor may not see is that there is another mid-week service and a gathering for younger people throughout the week. But the Paris church refused to view themselves as small and insignificant. As an Arabic-speaking church, the believers in Paris make up a community of Arab-speaking Evangelicals that only numbers about 700. But when the Paris church decided that this community should be mobilized to do work together, 500 people showed up! From there, a network has emerged that includes efforts to reach the French-speaking children and youth of Arab-speaking Christians. The church has also intentionally also always reached out to native French people by continuing to use the French language and not resort simply to Arabic in services. There have also been efforts to bring dialogue between Muslims and Christians, and now new outreach opportunities are opening up even outside of France. The Paris COG punches way above its weight because it views itself as critical to the Kingdom of God.
In Athens, the Church of God was on the brink of being finished forever. This would have been a shame, not only because this would mean the end of the Church of God in Greece, but also because the church is located in probably the prime area for ministry opportunities in all of Greece. The Exarchia neighborhood, only a 20 minute walk from the Acropolis, is the home of a university, of the anarchist movement, it's the center of a young Bohemian art scene, the drug trade, and has a red-light district. Most Evangelical churches would kill for a location like this. The new Pastor Vassilios Tsimparas walks through the neighborhood, engages drug-addicts, musicians, and anyone he comes across. He even invited local musicians to use the church stage for a community music night. While the church was lucky to have 5 to 10 people when he took over, today there have been special events that have had 300 show up. An Indonesian community has also joined the church and pretty soon it's time to start thinking of youth opportunities for the emerging youth group. "We may need an English service too, in addition to Greek and Indonesian," he reports.
In the Netherlands, the Three Worlds concept is being put to the test as traditional churches, post-Christendom churches, and a Non-Western (African) congregation join forces to become a unified force. All these smaller churches have special people and gifts that can benefit the other. With Daniel and Christy Kihm now stationed in the country, the three worlds will interact and connect on an even greater level to each other and the whole Church of God.
In Egypt, an older congregation has allowed the Oldhams to start a new children's ministry targeting a different generation in a different location--but still part of the same church. In Bulgaria, the Simpsons have encouraged new methods of outreach including English-speaking events, reaching international students, and developing youth leadership around the establishment of regular youth events. In Hungary, an older leaders graciously stepped aside to allow a new generation of leadership to emerge, the same way Kelley and Rhonda Philips did when they voluntarily stepped down making way for Patrick and Jamie Nachtigall. The Hungarian churches are now unified like never before as they make sweeping structural changes.
"The church can still afford to be in denial in the United States in a way that the European church cannot," says Regional Coordinator Jamie Nachtigall. "In Europe, it is very clear that the church has got to become more flexible if it wants to reach people for Christ. It's very clear that staying exactly the same and hoping things will change does not work. It all comes down to whether people in the churches are willing to put their pride aside and seek a new vision wherever that may lead." Fortunately, European churches and leaders are willing to take chances.
But all of this is definitely high-risk. XZ Berlin has continually had to remain flexible and make adjustments. But core ministry has clearly emerged as the Kelley and Rhonda and two German couples reach out to a very secular community, serve those caught in sexual slavery, train and equip college students and other leaders to engage the Post-Modern urban environment, and creating internship opportunities. XZ Berlin is a safe place for young people to process their struggle with their call to ministry or with Christianity. It's also a safe place to think about totally out-of-the-box leaders.
"We are finding that struggling churches can retain their identity but also create space for something totally new," says Jamie. "There has to be a portion of the church that is off the ledge. It's possible that the Church of God in Europe is becoming a model for this kind of innovation, the Silicon Valley."
But are church-turn arounds really valuable? Isn't it better to just start new ministries? No, for at least a couple of reasons. First of all, many of these faith communities do not feel finished. They are willing (and that's the key!) to change and allow a new vision to emerge. If people are open to a fresh, new vision, then they should be given the opportunity to try. Second, in Europe, closing a church can mean losing the right to do ministry in an entire country! Churches and denominations have to be registered, and if they go extinct, it's possible that the Church of God would never be able to get permission again to operate.
But it is difficult. "Both in Europe and the Middle East, the work is hard and the pay-offs are few." The 3W Missionaries have to be resilient and not easily discouraged because in Europe their is strong philosophical resistance and in the Middle East there can be deadly physical resistance. While a lot of Evangelicals like big wins, and clear results, Europe takes a lot of effort. "But this is increasingly the journey that the North American church must take also so why not do it together?," Jamie adds.
The next big challenge is Liverpool where the small Birkenhead church is only one of four Evangelical churches in an area of 80,000 people--where none of them have more than 20 people. The remarkable thing is the good people the Egan Street Church of God have been hosting a group of teenagers that have migrated their way. It is almost a mystery as to why very secular, at-risk kids in England's poorest neighborhood show up to the Church of God. They know so little about religion or even proper behavior that one would expect them to avoid the church like the plague. Instead, Mark Rainford and the church provide a place for them to feel safe for a few hours. Zach and Audrey Langford who have 1 1/2 years of experience working with these youth in Birkenhead are looking for financial support to continue this task in one of the most difficult mission-fields in not only Europe, but the world. The Church in North America needs to walk with and follow how these risk-taking ventures work out.
"These European churches are becoming trend-setters by being bold and taking risks.," adds Jamie. "Personally, I've always liked small churches more than larger churches, so this is a good place for us." Fear is the enemy of mission and the Church of God in Europe is accepting this truth. If "Jesus is the Subject," as our new General Director says, then propping up our institutions and traditions is not our top priority. Taking risks no matter what the cost is a better mission. Keep your eyes on Europe, a place where the small church has a chance.