Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, Shakespeare wrote. But nothing was rotten about my delightful dinner with nine church leaders from this Scandinavian country in northern Europe.
One of the highlights of attending The Gospel Coalition national conference was enjoying a couple hours with nine Danish brothers. Over the course of our meal, they peppered me with questions, and then I returned the favor, anxious to learn about how evangelicals are witnessing to the gospel in a country that is much further down the road of secularization than the United States.
Here are a few takeaways from our conversation.
1. Internet access has increased the influence of American evangelicalism in the rest of the world.
Our initial conversation wasn’t about philosophical and sociological trends affecting the church in Western Europe or North America. Instead, these leaders had questions about recent developments within American evangelical circles. How is it possible that Mars Hill churches were so closely tied to Mark Driscoll that his departure led to their structural demise? What is the future of the mega-church, and how does it impact ministry in a country where a “big” church consists of a hundred people? When will the Gospel Project be available in Danish?
With the prevalence of online sermons and conferences available to a generation that knows English as a second language, evangelicals in Denmark are well aware of what is taking place in North America. It may be true that the center of Christianity is shifting from the Northern hemisphere to South America and Africa, but when it comes to influence and ministry formation, many Christians in other parts of the world still look to the United States.
Our country’s leadership in other matters opens the door for Americans to have an outsized influence in spiritual concerns. This should be a cause for celebration (consider the number of good resources now available in English!) as well as concern (are we fully aware of the global ramifications of movements we are involved in?). For good and bad, evangelicals in other parts of the world are watching, listening, and learning.
2. Some of the political positions espoused by conservative American evangelicals baffle Christians from other parts of the world.
Like it or not, North American evangelicalism is closely tied to political positions, many of which are shared by evangelicals across the world, and some of which are not. There was no question that these brothers in Denmark were staunchly pro-life in their view of the unborn. There was also an unquestionable commitment to the reality of marriage and the sinfulness of homosexual practice, no matter how unpopular that view may be in Denmark, where same-sex unions have been recognized since 1989. On issues of life and marriage and family, evangelicals in Denmark resemble the global and historic witness of the church, and they are thankful for the faithfulness of their brothers and sisters across the pond.
But some evangelical political causes make them scratch their heads. Why do so many Christians dismiss the Affordable Care Act? Shouldn’t universal health care be a Christian concern? They are also puzzled by evangelical leaders who differentiate between acts of compassion and the true mission of the church (evangelism). I responded to these questions by offering various views of the economy and capitalism, explaining why charitable giving is higher among evangelicals who take fiscally conservative positions, and offering some historical perspective to show why evangelicals fear the “social gospel.”
The biggest surprise, for these Danish brothers, was seeing evangelicals be so outspoken on immigration, both legal and illegal. “I don’t see how the Christian position can be anything other than welcome and hospitality,” one told me. As the United States continues to debate immigration, evangelicals in other parts of the world wonder why so many white evangelicals take the “anti” side. They see this posture as a betrayal of a core Christian conviction.
3. The greatest challenge in a radically secularized society is not hostility to the gospel but indifference.
One might think that people in a secularized society would be overly hostile to the message of Christianity. Instead, with the state church still there to marry and bury people and tacitly bless the idea that personal pleasure is the goal of life, the biggest challenge is articulating the gospel in a way that shows how much better Jesus is than the life of hedonism offered to so many people.
People are indifferent, not hostile, to the gospel. They are willing to befriend evangelicals, but are quick to close down conversations that deal with religious issues or the big questions of life. “What works for me isn’t what works for everyone” is the unspoken assumption of a secular society.
4. Secondary issues become less divisive when evangelicals make up only a tiny sliver of society.
I was curious to see what these church leaders, who had left the state church over the years but remained Lutheran, thought about the evangelicals who remain in the state churches. To my surprise, there was no animosity toward brothers and sisters who want to hold on to their church buildings and their churches’ history. They understand the desire to be a gospel witness in a church that has abandoned the gospel — both in terms of the miraculous events we confess in our creeds and the distinctive morality we exhibit in our lives.
Furthermore, when evangelicals are so distinct a minority, it seems silly to spend time and energy debating or denouncing others who have different tactical strategies or differ on finer points of theology. “I’d rather spend my time denouncing apostasy and promoting truth than striving against brothers who haven’t come to the same conclusions I have,” another one told me. Theological disputes over secondary issues and methodological choices are a luxury of being in a large group.
I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from a rowdy group of Danes who love Jesus, love His church, and are unashamedly proclaiming the gospel in a secular society of indifference. May their passion be true of us as well!