The Long Shadow of Christendom

Andrew Wingate points out several significant religious trends in Western Europe. The first is that, in the last 100 years, the presence of Muslims on the European continent has dramatically increased both in demographic scale and in social impact. A century ago, European Christendom was at its height, not only evidenced by the expanse of the worldwide reach of its colonial territories, but also because of the bountiful optimism that characterized its outlook. France controlled Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, and Lebanon and Syria; Britain controlled an empire unparalleled in history.

The second significant trend Wingate identifies is that of secularization. The prevailing thesis since the Enlightenment—that religion faces certain extinction at all levels of European society—has long been an enchanting one. That narrative, however, was undermined by Europe’s colonial links, which proved to have unforeseen consequences on the religious landscape of the continent as reverse migration from the former colonies brought waves of migrants seeking a better life. The link with these colonies is one of the main reasons why Europe’s migrants are predominantly Muslim while the waves of migration to the U.S. are predominantly Christian.1

But the point here is that Europe’s “newer” migrants are religious and that their Hindu, Muslim, and Christian religiosity has triggered a continent-wide crisis of cultural, religious, and national identity.

As is evident from the discourse in secular media, the growth and presence of Islam and Christianity pose a challenge to widely held secular European values. However, not only does it question issues of national and cultural identity—whether a grandson of Turkish immigrants is “really” German or whether the granddaughter of Algerian immigrants is “truly” Parisian—it also poses the question of how the dynamic religiosity of new immigrants will impact the trajectory of European societies.

Wingate’s focus on Europe’s changing context raises important missiological implications for the future of interfaith dialogue in Europe. From a missiological perspective, the resurgence of the Christian faith due in large part to non-Western immigration is of critical importance. The result is a dynamic Christianity and a vibrant Islam, both of which are emerging side-by-side. Thus one might make the case that the European continent is not a graveyard for religion but rather a laboratory for new forms of faith, new structures of organization, and interaction that can accommodate religious involvement in a dominant secular environment.2

From a Christian perspective, the growth of some 250 Congolese and Haitian congregations in greater Paris, the presence of Ghanaian Pentecostal and charismatic churches in London, and the expansive impact of congregations like “The Embassy of the Blessed Kingdom of God for All Nations” founded by Nigerian-born pastor Sunday Adelaja in Kiev, Ukraine—are indicators of the renewal of the Christian faith. Missiologically these phenomena remain largely ignored, even though they represent some of the most unexpected and promising changes in the permutation of Christianity on the continent.

Given these changing realities, the following are some reflections on the implications for interfaith relations:

First, Christians seeking dialogue with Muslims (and vice-versa) will have to take into account the heterogeneity that is part and parcel of each respective community. Pakistani Sunnis, Saudi Wahhabis and Iranian Shiites are likely to share different “Islamic” worldviews which in turn will affect how they relate to one another as well as how they engage and adapt to the societies in which they find themselves. The same is true of the historical experiences of Church of Pentecostal members from Ghana or, as fellow responder Sunday Agang notes, Christians from the contentious Jos region of Nigeria.

Second, European governments differ greatly in their approach to religion. As Wingate correctly notes, secularization has become a central reality in national life in most countries, and in some, such as France, it is enshrined in legislation. Even though the right to share one’s faith and the right to convert are part of the human rights protected in the European Convention of Human Rights, how those laws are applied on the ground depends significantly on where one lives. Missiologist Lamin Sanneh makes the case that secular Europe would sooner make its peace with Muslims than with its new Christians.3 This he derives from numerous cases in which political leaders were quicker to extend legal protection and political recognition to Muslim immigrants. By contrast, Sanneh argues, immigrant churches are subject to cultural hostility as illegitimate cults. African Pentecostal groups, for example, are typically blamed for witchcraft and human sacrifice, their rituals condemned as voodoo magic.4 Consequently, these kinds of encounters may signal that Christianity in its new immigrant expressions may face as strong (and perhaps stronger) resistance as Islam in its quest for acceptance in society.

Third, a crucial issue requiring discernment is to what extent Christians and Muslims can cooperate on a wide range of social issues. More aggressive attacks on religion and religious values have led to the collaboration of some Muslims and Christians in order to defend the appropriate place of religion in public life.

Fourth, in a recent study by the Pew Research Center and the Pew Global Attitudes Project, researchers found that ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and racist attitudes are on the rise in Europe.5 Opinions about Muslims in almost all of the countries surveyed were considerably more negative than are views of Jews. Half of Spanish (52%) and German respondents (50%) rate Muslims unfavorably. Opinions about Muslims are somewhat less negative in Poland (46%) and even less so in France (38%). About one in four surveyed in Britain also voice unfavorable views of Muslims. The rise-in-tide of such negative opinions toward the Muslim community has direct implications for how local churches reach out to their Muslim neighbors. The kind of mission and pastoral care Wingate calls for will ring hollow if these negative attitudes are also shared by Christian communities.

In the final analysis, the nature and scope of the issues facing the church in Europe necessitate a holistic approach to mission and dialogue—one that, as Chawkat Moucarry notes, is “incarnational, compassionate and critical.”


1See Chapter 5 in Jehu J. Hanciles, Beyond Christendom: Globalization, African Migration and the Transformation of the West (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2008).

2Philip Jenkins, “Godless Europe?,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 31, no. 3 (2007): I.

3Lamin Sanneh, “Can Europe Be Saved? A Review Essay,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 31, no. 3 (2007): 125.

4Sanneh, 125.

5For the full report, see “Unfavorable Views of Jews and Muslims on the Rise in Europe”: