Stefan PAAS. Church Planting in the Secular West: Learning from the European Experience.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2016. pp. 304, paperback. ISBN 978 0 8208 7348 4. Reviewed by Richard RYMARZ, BBI-TAITE, Sydney, Australia.


Church planting is a well described phenomenon, especially, in North and South America. Arising predominately from the Pentecostal tradition it is premised on growth of local churches in areas that are seen as being underserved by more traditional religious communities.  A pertinent question, that this book addresses, is how well this model applies, to continue the analogy, to the much harder ground of secular Western Europe.  Paas has produced a fine, analytical survey of the field that moves well beyond description to examine in detail underlying issues and ongoing tensions.

An unexpected feature of the book is the lucid chronological overview of mission from an Evangelical perspective.  Beginning with the medieval period he moves through important thinkers such as Gisbertus Voetius and then onto modern and late modern paradigms.  This is an important discussion because it sees church planting as part of a much larger historical movement and one that cannot be understood in isolation from this.  The overview helps provide a series of theological reference points that the author uses throughout in his analysis of strengths and weaknesses in the current missiological discourse.  He highlights innovation as one of the most significant justifications for church planting in Europe.  This is a deliberate response to changing social conditions and can be contrasted with other approaches, namely, an emphasis on growth and a desire to maintain confessional purity.  

The author provides a strong contextualization based on the difficulty of the religious terrain in Europe.  This is critical as Western Europe provides challenges for church planters that do not easily translate to other contexts.  Paas favours the thesis that contemporary Europe is no longer neutral ground for those interested in evangelization and mission.  He notes that, “objections against Christianity are carried out by strong institutions…traditional religion is often considered as an option for immature, dependent people, who are afraid to face live as it is.” (p. 189.) In light of this, he remarks on p,. 206, “Missionaries in many European nations are like the prophet Ezekiel who faced a valley of death.” (As an aside, an impressive feature of the book is the frequent and appropriate scriptural references that indicate an author very familiar with biblical exegesis).  Paas supports his analysis with sufficient empirical data which underline his point about the difficulties facing church planters. These figures are well known but the author moves beyond these to make a series of penetrating points that go to heart of contemporary mission and outreach as understood in Evangelical terms.  

He offers, for instance, three models of innovative renewal; free havens, laboratories, and incubators. Each of these offers a valid response to what he calls the “crisis of European Christianity.”  The free haven offers a focus on a specialized area or mode of outreach. The laboratory stresses creative interaction between disparate groups and a rejection of conventional thinking.  The incubator model lives in tension with the wider social context and provides stimulation and support to those affiliated. The goal here is not denominational expansion but a desire to see new churches as a legitimate example of the dynamic relationship between mission and church. The difficulty faced by church planters in this context becomes their strongest justification as the mission of the church is sharpest and most obvious in contexts where the message of the gospel is unfettered and indeed contested.  It will rise or fall on its capacity to engage with the human experience and to be an authentic expression of Christian witness.