The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
Dutch theologian Stefan Paas on learning from the “exile” and “diaspora” mindsets. “In the process of secularization everything else falls away: cultural pride, power of numbers, even money, position, status. The only thing you’re left with is Scripture and God.”
Is the secularization of Europe and North America the greatest threat the Western Church has yet faced? Or is it the greatest opportunity since the first century for the Church to rediscover who and what it really is?
During the recent Evangelical Forum in Prague (Czech Republic) we had the opportunity to talk about this situation with Dr. Stefan Paas, a Dutch theologian and church planter.*
Paas believes secularization offers the Church unprecedented opportunity to flourish through embracing the perspective of “exile.”
Question. Tell us a little about your faith journey. How did you come to faith in Christ?
Answer. I was raised in a Christian family. I grew up in a broadly Calvinist environment, in a small church. Not fundamentalist but quite conservative. I think one of the defining moments in my faith was that my parents were very involved in missions behind the “iron curtain.”
Once in a while we received visitors from behind the curtain, from East Germany mostly. As a little boy I would sit there at the table and look at these people who suffered for their faith, and I can’t deny that impressed me. These were people who really lived for something and were prepared to die for something. Whereas my friends and the people on our street were for the most part ordinary, secular people who, well, they were nice but they played with electric trains, went footballing (I liked football, too, but…).
It was all a bit more of the ordinary than these people who went to great lengths to confess something and defend something that they really believed in. That was one of the first things that really struck me, these people who really lived for and believed in something.
Q. What are some key moments in your journey that helped lead to your current perspective?
A. Of course there were many more things in our family that I’ve been blessed by. I have very good parents, parents who really live out of their faith without being oppressive or too strict. That was important.
Another important moment later on came when I was a student, when I was 17 or 18. I met some older students who were quite unembarrassed to share their faith in public. I was scared to do that and was not really sure of my faith. Although I always believed in God, I realized that I wanted this kind of freedom - because that’s what I think it really is, a kind of freedom if you can do that. This brought me to a place of crisis. I wanted clarity for my life. When I was about 18, I opened my Bible to do my regular Bible reading, and I read Romans 2:4, which is about the goodness of God that leads to salvation. Now, having been raised in a quite conservative environment, even though my family and my friends were not constantly harping on sin or anything, my picture of God was a bit mixed. In a way I perceived God to be quite judgmental, a very strict father. And then this, “the goodness of God that leads to salvation,” struck me like lightening. You could call that my moment of conversion.
Only quite recently have I started to tell that story. I always kind of kept it for myself. I’m not from a tradition where it’s en vogue to share conversion stories. If you have such an experience, it is considered as something personal, something private between you and the Lord. Also I do believe that it is not necessary to have a dramatic conversion story, and it might distract people from discipleship if they search for a spectacular experience rather than daily committing themselves to the Lord. But anyway, I had it. Later I went on to study theology and went through all kinds of intellectual processes. I’m a very intellectual person, I did my PhD in Old Testament studies, and I have always read a lot of philosophy. All these processes gave more depth to my faith, but that crucial moment was there when I was 18.
Later on, when I was 35 or so, after we moved to Amsterdam I came into a sort of crisis of faith. This often happens to people who are raised in more protected environments. For the first time in my life I came into an environment where nobody, really nobody, believed. Of course we had unbelieving friends before we went to Amsterdam, but this was a city where the culture itself was one of unbelief. Nobody cared about God and no one missed him.
People are social beings; you need an environment that supports your faith somehow. In Amsterdam at that time the environment supported unbelief. That time sent me back to Bible reading, and that was especially when I started to notice noticed the theme of exile, especially that Daniel was brought into exile by God himself, from protected Jerusalem to the pagan Empire of Babylon. That opened a new horizon for me. These are a few moments in my journey of faith. It’s not finished!
Q. You now advocate the Biblical themes of exile and diaspora based on your experience and reflections of what it is to be a Christian in a place like Amsterdam?
A. Yes. It’s also based on the kind of theologian I am. I’m an inductive theologian, I’m not a systematic theologian. I was trained as a Biblical scholar, then later as a missiologist. So I always start to think from the context to general principles, rather than the other way around. That’s the only way I can do theology, it must have some connection with my own biography. There is always a context of discovery, so to speak. And that was Amsterdam for me.
Q. Could you explain a little more what you mean by exile and diaspora, in which Christians see themselves as strangers and priests?
A. Certainly! First, we need to be clear that exile is a metaphor. We’re not the ancient Israelites. We were not conquered by the Babylonians - our children were not murdered by them, our women were not raped by them. If you read the book of Lamentations, you see all these terrible things. Although there are Christians of course who are experiencing these things today, but it is not our situation in this part of Europe. Exile is a metaphor for our situation. Walter Brueggemann has written, “good metaphors help us to see things in our own context that we wouldn’t see without them.” So that’s maybe one important point to make first.
There are a few things I can say about exile as a metaphor for our context. First of all, exile is not a project to embrace. It is not something that you do. It is something that happens to you. That’s basically what exile is. It is something that destroys your illusions about having control over your own future. It destroys the ideas that God is “on our side,” that God is “our God,” our “tribal god,” so to speak.
Consider, the Israelites had three promises from God. They would inhabit the land forever, there would always be a king in the Davidic dynasty, and God would always be in his Temple on Mount Zion. And then all three promises are destroyed. Israel found themselves in a profound crisis of faith as a consequence of all kinds of social, cultural and contextual changes. I think that resonates with what many Western Christians experience, living in countries where the church is in decline (at least numerically). This is a context in which exile as an experience becomes very real.
Diaspora, I think, is one stage further. Exile emphasizes the issue of trauma more, it is a first generation thing. The first generation still remembers how it was, how the First Temple was, so to speak. They cry when they see the Second Temple, because it’s not as beautiful as the one they remember. The young people (I'm referring to the book of Nehemiah) cheered when they saw the second temple. They didn’t have the memories, so they started all over again. That’s diaspora, I think.
The diaspora experience is more like living as a minority, sowing out into the surrounding culture. In diaspora this becomes more of a routine, more of a habit, a new mindset. That is I think what we increasingly see amongst younger generations of Christians. The trauma of the collapsing establishment of a Christian culture disappears and a new reality dawns, which is a new reality in which it is important to protect your identity. The culture is no longer supporting your faith, so you need to work on it to create disciplines and routines and habits in order to sustain it. Like the ancient Israelites - they built synagogues, they emphasized the Sabbath, they emphasized circumcision as important symbols of their faith. These also became ways that God communicated to the people when the Temple was destroyed and there was no longer that ancient center of faith. I think for us today this means that the role of the Christian family becomes much more important. Sacraments and habits and routines become much more important.
Also the aspect of witness. As long as you’re in power, and sort of the center of your culture, and you have the whole history of your culture behind you, your words ring self-evidently true. The church can authoritatively “tell it like it is.” But when you’re not in that central position, you speak out of the margins. That’s a witnessing voice, a voice of testimony. For example, in the second part of the book of Isaiah, that’s what you see. You see grand visions of God and how God rules the world, but we tend to forget that these words were spoken by a prophet in exile, an extremely marginalized person.
I think exile and diaspora also bring a new relationship with the world. I tend to say in the Netherlands, “As long as God is the God of the Netherlands, he cannot become the God of Eskimos, or Americans, or Africans.” So if the whole construction of nation, culture and religion is destroyed, then in a way the “God of our fathers” is “liberated” to become the God of the world. This is exactly what happens in exile - Israel begins to see that God can become the God of Cyrus. Cyrus the pagan king becomes a servant of the Lord. It opens up many perspectives and many challenges, and new horizons in faith and theology and spirituality.
Q. You have mentioned elsewhere that this condition of exile has made Europe a kind of a laboratory for new forms of churches and faith as a result...
A. Yes, I was quoting Philip Jenkins about that, but I do agree with him.
Q. So in this mix, what are some bright spots? What are some of the greatest innovations you see emerging at this time?
A. Well, one of them is multicultural churches. You see many of these new churches emerging, especially in the cities. I think that’s a very interesting development, something that’s just starting. But I know of some churches in my own neighborhood, for example some ancient Roman Catholic parishes, that have been revitalized by the influx of many Christians as well as non-Christians who converted, coming from other parts of the world.
Also Protestant and Evangelical churches have become multicultural. I can think of one example of a church that is entertaining new experiments with leadership, because leadership traditions are very different between Africans and Europeans. It is a challenge - multicultural reality is not romanticism, it’s hard work! But for the first time in history with Europe, we see something of this New Testament picture that in Christ there is no slave or free, no African or European. This is happening.
This multiculturalism is also bringing interesting cross-fertilization in terms of faith and spirituality. For example, between reformed traditions and charismatic traditions. I see some examples of that where I live at least. I think that’s an important development.
Missiologically we see, through the refugee and immigrant situations, the “ends of the earth” brought to our own countries. You don’t have to travel to the far corners of the world anymore. Just stay in your own city! In Amsterdam there are 177 ethnicities. That’s extreme. The whole world is represented there and can be reached from there. In terms of mission there is all kinds of innovation possible.
One of the things I see in terms of church planting and innovation is so-called hybrid churches. For example, a friend of mine who is in theater started a church with atheists. That is an extremely unlikely thing to do. But he said that if he expected them to be open enough to listen to him, then of course he should to be open enough to listen to them. He started this not knowing what would come out of it. And of course, that’s something true about real innovation. It's not like cooking. You cannot have the recipe ready and know how it is going to turn out in advance. It’s always a surprise what comes out. Although that is like my cooking.
When we talk about innovation, an important thing to mention is that it is not adaptation. The interesting thing about innovation is that you can’t see where it leads to. Innovation is a risky thing that is very hard to describe. I find it difficult to speak about, say, the three greatest innovations that I see because if we can see them, they’re not an innovation! Innovations widen our imagination. I think true innovations can only be evaluated looking back from about 50 years or so in the future.
An additional ingredient is the relationship between Islam and Christianity within Europe now. There are some young Christians becoming Moslems, but there are also many Moslems becoming Christians. Especially from Iran, from Northern Africa. We still don’t know what this will mean, but I think a new influx of Christians from a completely different background will lead to enrichment of the church. In fact, I’m sure it will. The faith of Christianity in Europe is changing now very rapidly, and not just because of secularization.
Q. We’re speaking here in the Czech Republic. What encouragement or perhaps advice might you offer to the churches here, based on your encounter with them so far?
A. I’ve been here for two days, so it would be quite preposterous to have all kinds of advice. I think one of the most important things for the church in general, especially in a secular society, is to understand that the worst thing that can happen to a church is not being marginalized, weak, declining in membership, etc., etc., and not even to have church fights. The worst thing that can happen is that you cannot see any meaning in your situation anymore. Or in other words, you can no longer make any connection between Scripture and your situation, you cannot see how God is working or what God is doing in your situation.
As long as the church, even in the process of secularization, can see that God is working in this, and can believe that and can live out of that, there’s always hope. Then the church is the church. In fact, I’m quite sure that this may be one of the most hopeful things to come out of secularization. In the process of secularization everything else falls away: all kinds of cultural pride, power of numbers, even money, position, status. The only thing you’re left with is Scripture and God.
And that’s basically to turn or return to exile. That’s basically what Daniel and his friends had in Babylon. They had nothing else, but they opened the windows and prayed three times a day. They had to see God outside of his temple, because the temple was destroyed. That’s what I’m working on, in my book and in my lectures here, to try and challenge people to see how God relates to your context. As long as you can see that, there is beauty and joy and hope in every context, especially in exile. When we are weak he is mighty.
*ABOUT STEFAN PAAS
Stefan Paas (1969) worked as a high school teacher and as a staff worker for the IFES in the Netherlands until 1999. After he finished his PhD in Old Testament Studies (1998), he became a consultant for evangelism in the Christian Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. He became involved in several church plants. In 2005 he and his family moved to Amsterdam, where they assisted in the planting of Via Nova, a new church in the city centre. Being a professional theologian and committed to education, Stefan became a lecturer in missiology for the Theological University of the Free Reformed Churches in the Netherlands in 2009. In 2010 he took the J.H. Bavinck Chair for Church Planting and Church Renewal at the VU University Amsterdam. In 2014 he became Professor of Missiology at the Theological University of the Free Reformed Churches, a function that he combines with his professorate at VU University. In September 2015 he became J.H. Bavinck Professor of Missiology and Intercultural Theology at the VU University Amsterdam, alongside his professorate in Kampen (both 50%).
Stefan is also involved in the City to City Europe network of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (NYC) and Eurochurch.net, and he takes part in several national networks of evangelism and church planting. He has written some books on these subjects as well, and is preparing a publication in English on church planting in Europe. This will be published by Eerdmans in 2016, under the title: “Church Planting in the Secular West: A Critical View from Europe”. In 2012 Paas was mentioned as one of the ‘thinkers that matter’ by Elsevier, a secular weekly. Paas wrote several books, not only on church-planting and theology, but also on philosophy (‘God bewijzen’ [Proving God] together with Rik Peels, currently being translated) and a Christian approach to politics.