Pilgrims and priests

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Pilgrims and priests: missional ecclesiology in a secular society

by Stefan Paas

Watch Stefan Paas’s keynote Pilgrims and Priests: Christian mission in a post-Christian culture at the Church: Inside out? conversations day

Europe as a mission field

Since the Second World War, the need and urgency to develop a missionary perspective on what used to be the heartlands of Christendom has dawned upon many theologians and church leaders in the West. [1]

Rather than mission bases, sending out faithful armies to the mission fields in the South, European nations are now mission fields in their own rights. “Mission in six continents”, “reversed mission” and “mission from everywhere to everywhere” are the new realities in missiology. Moreover, evangelism and mission within Europe are no longer the somewhat dubious hobby horses of so-called “free churches” or “parachurch movements”; the traditional established churches of, for example, the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands have enthusiastically embarked on a missional course. Since the turn of the millennium, “church planting”, “fresh expressions of church”, “missional experimentation” and “pioneering projects” have been recurring topics on the agendas of these churches. [2] Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Christians are involved in such enterprises, adding a steady trickle of new converts to the church, and increasing its diversity and expanding its reach among populations who have become alienated from the Christian message. Such enterprises also raise many theological and organisational questions, bearing promises for the renewal of Christianity in the Old World.

The deep secularisation of many European nations has been the background of much of this new trend towards mission. In the West, however, secularisation cannot be treated as a historical contingency that somehow took us by surprise. Time and again it has been emphasised that the category of the “secular” only makes sense within a Christian frame of thought, while secularisation as a historical process took off first and foremost in societies that had been Christianised previously. [3] In other words, while secularisation has alternatively been seen as an enemy of the faith or as its logical outcome, there can be no doubt that it is intertwined with long centuries of Christian mission.

Secularisation in Europe has thus a post-Christendom and post-Christian character. [4] Adopting Europe as a mission field, therefore, should lead to reflection on the meaning of Christian mission in a continent that is in many ways “post”-Christian. The moralities, cultural identities, and societal and political structures of European nations have been profoundly influenced by Christianity, even though the large majority of their populations have rejected core Christian beliefs and do not go to church. And there is a history to deal with – a long, complicated and messy history where Christianity informed the laws, customs and politics of European nations and thus became implicated in their greatest successes but also in their worst moral failures.

All this presents Christian mission in Europe with huge challenges, which are reinforced by the practical experience of many missionaries that “successes” in terms of church growth or creating societal impact are few and far between. Whatever success there is does not compensate for the losses that are still suffered. In the Netherlands, for example, the churches may welcome hundreds of new Christians each year, but at the same time the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (the largest Protestant denomination) alone loses some 70,000 members per year. Of course, overall statistical decline may very well overlap with new beginnings and hopeful trends on a local level, but these statistics point to the harsh reality that many missionaries in Europe are not seeing as much measurable success as their counterparts in China, Brazil or sub-Saharan Africa, regardless of how much prayer, love and hard work they invest.

Why mission in Europe?

In my new book, Pilgrims and Priests (publishing in November 2019), I struggle with this challenge of evangelising a post-Christian society. [5] Most of what I am writing in this article is explored more extensively there. One of the first issues that needs to be addressed is the “why” of Christian mission in Europe. What is the purpose of mission in a post-Christian culture? I believe this is an extremely important question, precisely because many Christians seem to find it so trivial. Part of the rediscovery of Europe as a mission field entails that all sorts of missional concepts and expectations that belonged to the missionary enterprise elsewhere are applied to Europe unreflectively. Church growth, revival, church-planting movements, re-evangelisation and societal transformation are thus becoming the tacit norms against which missional practice is measured – and usually fails to pass the bar. Here, European history returns with a vengeance. The traditional movement from Europe to its colonial “mission fields”, after all, was inspired by the reality of Christianised Europe (Christendom). The missionary movement originated in a desire to replicate the European experience of nations formed by Christianity in other parts of the world. When mission returns to Europe, it comes with all sorts of historical baggage, including the totalising dreams of recreating a Christian culture and a Christian society. [6]

This nostalgia for an idealised Christian past has always been influential among Christian leaders in modernity, especially in contexts of beginning secularisation. In 1885 Pope Leo XII issued his encyclical Immortale Dei, where he wrote (section 21):

There was once a time when States were governed by the philosophy of the Gospel. Then it was that the power and divine virtue of Christian wisdom had diffused itself throughout the laws, institutions, and morals of the people, permeating all ranks and relations of civil society.

A few years before Leo’s description of a Christianised society, the Dutch statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper had said that “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ… does not cry: ‘Mine!’” (1880). [7] Kuyper’s neo- Calvinism has become very influential again among missional thinkers who emphasise a holistic and transformationist approach of our societies. One might also think here of Lesslie Newbigin’s famous question (1987): “Can the West be converted?” [8] Here too a totalising vision of a Christianised society echoes in the background. In short, our theologies and models of mission have been forged in the crucible of Christendom, and this turns out to be very problematic in societies that have emphatically rejected Christendom.

So, again, what is the purpose of mission in Europe? What should we aim for in a culture that has been “converted” and “transformed” for ages – with very mixed results? This question must be posed keeping in mind that missional enthusiasts on the one hand are happy to criticise Christendom while they often revel in dreams of “growth”, “revival” and “transformation” on the other. However, what are these but dreams of Christendom? So, can Christian mission avoid Christendom? Or is some form of Christendom (that is, a Christianised social order) the logical and desired outcome of mission? As I am a missiologist and a missional practitioner in the very secular context of Amsterdam, these questions are relevant to me. For many small Christian communities in deeply secularised societies, this cuts to the heart of what Christian mission is about. If our purpose should be, explicitly or implicitly, to (re-)create a Christianised society, then we’re in for despair. Only those with a great gift of ignoring reality can accept this as their mission. But if Christian mission does not depend on the ideal of a Christianised social order, and if it can adopt a minority witness as its core identity, then these communities can be places of joy and hope.

Models of missional ecclesiology in the 20th century

In our search for a theology and spirituality that helps us to make sense of mission in a post-Christendom society, we turn to existing models of mission first. It is interesting, and telling, to see that all the dominant models of missional ecclesiology in recent times depend on a grand vision of unity (a Christianised world) that is either assumed or programmatically projected.

For example, the assumption that we are all still on the same page in terms of religion is seen in the mutations of the ancient European folk church traditions into the direction of a generalised “religion” or “spirituality”. While we are no longer Christians anymore, we are all “religious” or “spiritual” somehow – or so goes the typical liberal response to the recurring statistical facts of religious decline. “Horse riding is also spiritual,” wrote a Dutch Protestant pastor in a daily, responding to the latest report on religion in the Netherlands. By this what I call “homeopathic folk church theology” it is possible to maintain that we are still a “religious”, or at least a “spiritual”, nation since most of us love football or gardening.

Another, and more subtle, form of denial may be found in the current emphasis in missional literature on the “countercultural model of church”, inspired by sixteenth-century Anabaptism. While this model contains much valuable insight for reflection on mission in a post-Christian society, it is also true that the Anabaptist perspective on church implicitly depends on a Christianised background culture that recognises (and, to some extent, appreciates) the radical countercultural presence of the Christian community in their midst. Without going into too much detail here, [9] I suggest that the countercultural approach depends on the monastic tradition of Christendom – offering a context for radical discipleship in a culture that was largely seen as Christian. To adopt this approach without further reflection as the main missional strategy to a post-Christian culture is to deny the hugely changed conditions under which the church has to operate now.

Missional models that have their origins in modern times usually accept that western societies are no longer “Christian” (or perhaps never were), but they set this as a problem to be solved. Take, for example, the Church Growth Movement, which became influential, especially among evangelicals, through the works of Donald McGavran and Peter Wagner, and through movements like DAWN (Discipling a Whole Nation). McGavran defined the “chief and irreplaceable” purpose of mission as the numerical growth of the church. [10] Thus he introduced a zero-sum game where the growth of the church correlates with the decline of the world, and vice versa. The mathematics are simple: the church can grow until the whole world has become church. In other words, the purpose of mission is to make the world “church” (again). Younger evangelicals have often developed some reservations against growthdriven (pragmatic, managerial) approaches of mission and have adopted “transformationist” (holistic, social justice) approaches instead. “Fundamentally,” Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden write, “transformation is the transformation of communities to reflect kingdom values.” [11] In practice, however, the intended outcome of such a transformation is usually kept rather vague. How does a transformed society look like if it is not to be a repetition of the Christendom experience? I sometimes ask my students to close their eyes for a minute and think of the most Christianised place in their country. Then, after a while, I ask them if they would like to live there. Invariably, this question produces embarrassed smiles. Talking about “transformation” is all fair and square, but in our post-Christian societies the question of what this means in practice immediately arises. How would such a transformed society, for example, deal with minorities (or even majorities) that do not want to be part of these “kingdom values”? How, in short, would such a society handle power?

Of course, much can be learned from these models. They all contain building blocks for a truly post- Christendom missiology. But this can only happen if they are purified from a lack of realism and, even more, from the instrumentalising approach that characterises much modern missionary thinking. Let us look at this next.

Instrumentalisation of mission vs doxology

Modern missionary thinking, especially when it is driven by ideals of church growth or transformation, is often premised on an instrumentalising view of mission. This may not be as clear in societies where the church is growing rapidly and where Christianity is gaining much societal impact. But in secularising societies, where conversions are rare and the church’s impact is ambiguous and small, this inherent weakness will inevitably surface.

To welcome new Christians should indeed be a deep desire of the church, but to buy into church growth theory is something else entirely. To accept numerical growth of the church as the purpose of mission is to instrumentalise evangelism in the service of statistics. Conversions are important signs of the coming kingdom of God; they are the first fruits of the eschatological harvest. But, as Jesus says, “There is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10). If church growth is the justification of evangelism, one sinner who repents is not enough. He or she will not turn our statistics. If church growth is seen as the purpose, and thus the ultimate justification of mission, the work of evangelism becomes driven by numbers rather than persons. Similarly with mission as transformation; if all the good work the church does in terms of fighting poverty or working for justice is justified by the contribution it makes to the transformation of societies, we are not just heading towards despair but we are also betraying the beauty and truth of what mission is about. “Let us not become weary in doing good,” writes the apostle (Gal. 6:9). But if transformation rather than doing good is our purpose, we will become weary (and cynical) very soon. After all, the efforts of the small minority of Christians in contexts of deep secularisation are not likely to have much measurable impact in terms of “transformation”.

Key to a missional spirituality in a deeply secularised society is to abandon an instrumentalised approach of mission, where evangelism is justified by “church growth” and social ministry is justified by “transformation”. This leads to deep frustration and doubt, as it also puts us into competition with the world (Christians should be “better” somehow). The question is: how can we rejoice over one sinner who converts, even if our statistics are not converted? And how can we not become weary in doing good, even if our doing good does not lead to transformation? I believe that a doxological approach of mission will be more fruitful here. Perhaps this is what churches in contexts of deep secularisation are learning as lessons for the global church. Essentially, doxology is praise. When Christians praise God, worship him, they say something like this: “There is One who is not good ‘for’ anything, but he is simply good. Period.” And so too with all things divine, all works done in his service and for his glory. Mission is doxological: it is doing what is good and beautiful in love for a God who loves us freely. Perhaps we should use different metaphors here. Rather than using traditional militaristic or business metaphors, we might think of mission as creating art. Art radiates beauty and meaning that does not depend on its possible usefulness. On the contrary; precisely because of its lack of usefulness, art helps us understand that goodness and beauty are not necessarily useful in terms of impact or money. Mission might be a work of art. It is a cause of joy and gratitude; it is a work of free and undemanding love; it is serving a God who is sheer love and beauty.

Exile and diaspora as a sense-making narrative

In order to make sense of a minority mission to a post-Christian society, it is crucial that Christians learn to hear God’s voice again. Part of the insecurity, the gnawing doubt that is part of the secular experience for many Christians, is the fear that God has abandoned us. Conversely, the beginning of God’s speaking may be found where we find ways to reconnect his story to our predicament. In other words, Christians should dare to ask the question of whether God is “in” the secularisation or our cultures. Does the deep secularisation of western societies mean that God has disappeared, or is it rather a path through which he leads his people to new discoveries, a new dependence on his grace?

Without suggesting that our experience is the same as ancient Israel’s exile, I want to emphasise how much of the Bible is written in situations of displacement and uprooting. The narratives of exile and diaspora may help late–modern Christians in the West to reconnect their cultural experience with the experience of the ancient prophets who witnessed about God in situations where everything seemed lost. Let us not forget that the crisis of exile was for Israel a crisis of faith. All God’s promises had become futile overnight: his promise to Abraham that his seed would inherit this land, his promise to David that his dynasty would rule forever, and his promise to Solomon that God would dwell in the temple he had built. When the Babylonians came over the walls in 586BC, the king was captured and his sons were killed, the temple was burned down, and the people was carried away into exile. God had failed; new and superior gods reigned, or so it appeared.

This was a time of trauma, as the Book of Lamentations makes clear. It was also a time of sense-making, of trying to explain why all this had happened. Reflection on past sins played an important role here, just like it might be important for today’s church to reflect on the sins of Christendom and to somehow express this in their liturgies and public utterances. However, this was also a time of new discoveries. Israel had to recognise that the God of their nation was the God of all the earth; they found out that the God of Israel was the God of all nations. “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom” (Isa. 40:28). This is God’s world, after all. It is a far more surprising world than Israel dared ever believe. Here God raises very unlikely servants, such as “my servant Cyrus” (Isa. 45:1), a pagan king. Israel was to learn what the church may have to learn today: that being uprooted and becoming weak may be the key to understanding more about God and God’s world. God has not abandoned us, not at all. He has led us into a new environment, where we are far more vulnerable and thus far more dependent on him. Christian institutions have crumbled, Christian power has disappeared. Yet it might very well be that only by losing the “God of our ancestors” and the “God of our land” will we see how great and merciful God truly is. We are on to new discoveries of what it means to see this world as God’s world, a world that gives us surprising and humbling glimpses of the Spirit working through the most unexpected “servants”.

Priesthood as mission

To be an exile is to be a stranger, a minority. Christians are not necessarily hated or discriminated against (after all, Joseph, Daniel and Esther rose to great power and prestige in exile), but to live in diaspora means to live without power. We cannot any longer make life for ourselves just a little bit easier than for non-Christians. Christians don’t “own” this culture any more. To be an exile means to depend on the goodwill of others.

In the New Testament this metaphor of being an exile, or a stranger, plays an important role in defining the identity of the Christian community. In my book I explore this based on the first letter of Peter. Interestingly, the apostle does not only address “his” churches as “foreigners and exiles” (1 Pet. 2:11). He also calls them a “priesthood” (2:9). Priesthood may be a key metaphor to understand Christian existence as a missional minority in a secular culture. Priests are mediators, in-between people. They are called out of the world to mediate between the world and God. They represent God before their cities and neighbourhoods, and they represent their cities and neighbourhoods before God.

What priests do

Represent God before their peopleRepresent their people before God
Teach, blessWorship, sacrifice
Evangelism, social ministry, etc., “seeking the peace and prosperity of the cityNaming the beauty and goodness of the world and praising God for it, gathering gratitude and lamentation and offering it to God, intercession

In the Old Testament, priests are charged with specific tasks. They instruct the people in the ways of the Torah, and they extend God’s blessings to the people they serve. Reversely, they come to God on behalf of the world out of which they are called. Thus, they offer worship and sacrifice. (See table above.)

It is impossible to go into much detail here, but let me list a few characteristics of priesthood that may help us to reflect on Christian presence and witness in secular societies.

Firstly, priests are a minority by definition. This metaphor highlights that a vital mission does not depend on the size of the community nor on its impact. Three old ladies in a senior home can be the priesthood of their friends and neighbours, just like a crowd of 3,000 worshippers can be the priesthood of their city.

Secondly, it is important to note that “priesthood” is a collective term. It highlights that Christians receive their identity through the community of the church. I am not talking here about the institutional structures of the church (without denying that these are important), but about the organic web of relationships that is also (primarily?) the church. And we also know that it is very difficult to say where this web of relationships stops and the “world” begins. We know where salvation begins, but we don’t know (nor do we need to) where it stops. Through endless bonds of friendship and other loving relationships, God works his salvation into the bloodstream of the world. Priesthood functions out of these loving relationships; it operates on the basis of sharing everyday life, without hidden agendas or recruitment pressure. If Christians have loving relationships with their neighbours, relatives, colleagues and friends, and if these relationships are such that the fullness of life can be shared, then these relationships will be the most important source for the worship of the priesthood that approaches God on behalf of the world. Priests invite people to share their lives with them, they ask if they are allowed to pray to God for them or to thank God for the beauty and goodness in their lives. It takes away the competition, and to think of yourself as the priest of your family or your neighbourhood may become a rich inspiration to love people around you, to serve them and to develop deep relationships.

Thirdly, if we pursue this further, we may find a more hopeful perspective on evangelism and social ministry. Of course, it is good to invite people to join the church and to become fellow priests, but often people will say “no”. In our society the church is a no-go area, even for many people who have some sympathy for Jesus or the Bible. If our main interest is church growth or recruitment, this “no” is usually the end of the story. But if the church is a priesthood, this is not at all the end of it. Priests will worship God “on behalf of” the world. Even if you are the only one in your family who goes to church, you are doing this “for” them as well. Your calling is to be the priest of your family, your workplace or your neighbourhood. This may be hard to accept or even to understand, as we are so deeply individualised that even our relationship with God seems to be a completely individualistic adventure. Thus, we believe that everybody should have his or her own high-quality relationship with God, and nobody can depend on someone else’s faith. There is truth in that, but I believe that that a good dose of covenantal or collective thinking may be a wholesome influence in our individualised spiritualities. Think for example of the righteous Job, who would sacrifice a burned offering for each of his children every morning, thinking, “Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts” (Job 1:4–5). As a priest he took responsibility for his children, and he committed himself to representing them in worship for God. Or think of the apostle Paul’s response to the Corinthians who asked him about divorce. He answered that a Christian should not divorce his or her unbelieving spouse, “For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy” (1 Cor. 7:13–14). For us who are steeped in an individualistic mindset it is very difficult to make sense of this, but it makes perfect sense if we accept that God works through relationships. Apparently, it is possible that the faith of one family-member “sanctifies” the others. I don’t know what this means exactly in terms of salvation, or how far this “sanctification” will carry us, but it seems very clear that it means a lot more than our individualised spiritualities allow. To be a priest is to carry others before God; it is to “sanctify” them by representing them.


Small Christian communities in deeply secular societies can find a joyful minority mission by abandoning instrumentalising approaches of mission, by reconnecting with the narratives of exile and diaspora (yes, God is “in” the secularisation of our cultures) and by accepting their role as the priesthood of their nations, cities, neighbourhoods, workplaces and families. In some times and places this may lead to numerical growth and considerable impact on their societies. In most times and places their presence will be modest, sometimes hardly noticeable, and always fragile. However, I hope that I have been able to argue that this is not a cause of despair, but rather a cause of joy. After all, a context of deep secularisation may become a place where great lessons can be learned about God and his world, and where Christians can find their vocation as the priesthood of the world.

About the author

Stefan Paas is professor of missiology and intercultural theology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, professor of missiology at Theologische Universiteit Kampen (the Netherlands) and research associate of the department of Religion Studies, Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of Pretoria (South Africa). He is also director of the Centre for Church and Mission in the West in Kampen. He has worked as a church planter in Amsterdam, where he is still involved in church life. Stefan is married with three children.

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[1] See Stefan Paas, “The Making of a Mission Field: Paradigms of Evangelistic Mission in Europe,” Exchange 41 (2012): 44–67.
[2] For extensive reflections, see my Church Planting in the Secular West: Learning from the European Experience (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016).
[3] For some discussion, see Stefan Paas, “‘Notoriously Religious’ or Secularising? Revival and Secularisation in Sub-Saharan Africa,” Exchange 48 (2019): 26–50.
[4] There is more on these terms in my “Post-Christian, Post-Christendom, and Post-modern Europe: Towards the Interaction of Missiology and the Social Sciences,” Mission Studies 28:1 (2011): 3–25.
[5] Stefan Paas, Pilgrims and Priests: Christian Mission in a Post-Christian Society (London: SCM, 2019).
[6] See Stefan Paas, “Mission from Anywhere to Europe: Americans, Africans, and Australians Coming to Amsterdam,” Mission Studies 32:1 (2015): 4–31. ~
[7] Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty” (1880), in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 488.
[8] Lesslie Newbigin, “Can the West be Converted?”, International Bulletin of Missionary Research 11:1 (1987): 2–7.
[9] See my “The Countercultural Church: An Analysis of the Neo-Anabaptist Contribution to Missional Ecclesiology in the Post-Christendom West,” Ecclesiology 15 (2019), 217–89.
[10] Donald A. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, second edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 24.
[11] Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden, eds., Mission as Transformation: A Theology of the Whole Gospel (Eugene: Regnum Books, 1999), xii.