Henk Medema

Return2Sender: American Evangelicals in Europe - Roosevelt Academy

Would you go to Walcheren, the former island in Zeeland, SW Netherlands, to attend a congress on the influence of American Christians on the post-WWII-evangelisation of Europe? You would, definitely. And I did. The Roosevelt Academy in Middelburg was in charge of organizing this on July, 15th, 2015. It was more than interesting. In this blog, I cannot go into the many intriguing scholarly details. I am limiting myself to three interesting points that were brought up, from which I see three questions coming up for European (or more specific) Dutch evangelicalism.
After WWII the eyes of many Americans were opened for the old continent, Europe, in a totally new way. There was a deep compassion about the physical ruins of Europe, after its liberation. But there was another aspect: a sense of the spiritual needs of the continent, arising not only by two world wars, but also from cultural developments in the 19th and 20th century. American Christian organisations started to be active towards Europe, e.g. European Christian Mission (before the war), and Youth For Christ (starting during the forties), but also new ones like Greater European Mission (led by Robert P. Evans), Trans World Radio (led by Paul Freed) and Campus Crusade for Christ (Bill and Vonette Bright). Also strong and gifted evangelists like Billy Graham and Francis Schaeffer came to Europe and left their strong marks on the post-war years.

At least three combat lines were seen in the eyes of American Christians in the need of being addressed. First: empty pews: quickly deminishing numbers of Sunday church visitors. Then also an errant Bible: increasingly liberal views on Scripture authority. And thirdly ecumenical holism: the World Council of Churches was (perhaps most strongly around Uppsala 1968) contending for a social gospel, whilst the new evangelicals heavily emphasized a gospel message directed towards the conversion of sinners.
[1] [Empty Pews]
Unfortunately I cannot quote in full the interesting argument by John Corrigan, who clarified how the perception of ‘empty pews’ in Europe motivated American evangelists to come and ‘fill those pews’. Corrigan has developed similar lines in his book ‘Emptiness’ about how American were being drawn towards the empty West of America - not really empty as John Williams’ novel Butchers Crossing unfolds. I have to defer to the final publication to let Professor Corrigan make his own point. The question, though, is at any rate:
… was it really about empty pews, or was European orthodox, fundamentalist Christianity largely empty, in a similar way like American evangelicalism was for the bigger part?
[2] [Errant Bible]
The debate on inerrancy reached its peak around 1978 with the Chicago Declaration on Inerrancy. At the time it was signed by some 200 American Christian leaders, but in the years thereafter many evangelical organizations accepted this a a mandatory pledge to the infallibility of Scripture. This was one of the frontiers where Americans saw the need of drawing lines in confrontation with European liberal theologians, who (as they observed) draw deeply from the source of the ‘historisch-kritische Schule’ and the ‘dialektische Theologie’ (Bultmann and others). A new evangelical fundamentalism was taking up the battle against this liberal school. But the question might be different:
… was it really about theological inerrancy, or was the question to which extent human hearts were touched by the Word of God?
[3] [Ecumenical Holism]
A great number of new evangelical organisations moved across the Atlantic to bring the gospel, as many saw it, in a pure way: as a message personally directed to the souls of sinners, in order to save them. Later on quite a few evangelical organisations were set up in Europe with a similar accent, over against the World Council of Churches. (For the Netherlands they find a thorough treatment in ‘Radicale Protestanten’, the recent dissertation by Remco van Mulligen.) The liberal way of framing the gospel was bringing it in a holistic way, as earlier proponents had called it ‘a social gospel’. After several decades one might ask the deeper question:
… was (or is?!) such a contrast really necessary, in the perspective of more recent trends, with ecumenicals looking more towards personal evangelism, and evangelicals more open towards integral / holistic mission and missional church?
As Europeans, we have been thankful recipients of much that Americans have brought us from the other side of the Atlantic, in the last decades. Time has come, though, to go back along those tracks, and re-evaluate what has been valuable in the past, and will be important in the future.

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