Foreign Missionaries Find Fertile Ground in Europe
Singaporean Pastor Fires Up Staid Danes

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 11, 2007

COPENHAGEN -- The "Amens!" flew like popcorn in hot oil as 120 Christian worshipers clapped and danced and praised Jesus as if He'd just walked into the room. In a country where about 2 percent of the population attend church regularly and many churches draw barely enough worshipers to fill a single pew, the Sunday morning service at this old mission hall was one rocking celebration.

In the middle of all the keyboards, drums and hallelujahs, Stendor Johansen, a blond Danish sea captain built like a 180-pound ice cube, sang along and danced, as he said, like a Dane -- without moving.

"The Danish church is boring," said Johansen, 45, who left the state-run Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church three years ago and joined this high-octane interdenominational church run by a missionary pastor from Singapore. "I feel energized when I leave one of these services."

The International Christian Community (ICC) is one of about 150 churches in Denmark that are run by foreigners, many from Africa, Asia and Latin America, part of a growing trend of preachers from developing nations coming to Western Europe to set up new churches or to try to reinvigorate old ones.

For centuries, when Europe was the global center of Christianity, millions of European missionaries traveled to other continents to spread their faith by establishing schools and churches. Now, with European church attendance at all-time lows and a dearth of preachers in the pulpits, thousands of "reverse missionaries" are flocking back, migrating from poor countries to rich ones to preach the Gospel where it has fallen out of fashion.

The phenomenon signals a fundamental shift in the power, style and geography of Christianity, the world's largest religion. Most of its more than 2 billion adherents now live in the developing world. And as vast numbers of them migrate to Europe, as well as to the United States, they are filling pews and changing worship styles.

Churches in countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, South Korea and the Philippines have sent thousands of missionaries to Europe to set up churches in homes, office buildings and storefronts. Officials from the Redeemed Christian Church of God, a Pentecostal church based in Nigeria, said they have 250 churches in Britain now and plan to create 100 more this year. Britain's largest church, run by a Nigerian pastor in London, attracts up to 12,000 people over three services every Sunday.

The trend is vivid in Denmark, where charismatic preachers from Africa, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, India, Iran and Latin America have set up vibrant Protestant and Catholic churches.

'We Came Back to the West'

"When we became Christians in the East, we read the Bible and it said, 'Go out into the world and spread the Gospel,' " Pastor Ravi Chandran said to the congregation gathered at the ICC's hall in Copenhagen one recent Sunday morning. "And guess what? We came back to the West!"

Chandran, a youthful 42, grinned broadly as he looked out at the rainbow of worshipers.

"Can you say 'Amen' to that?" he asked, and Johansen, his wife and children joined the rest of the congregation in a thunderous "Amen!"

Back home after church, tucking into a lunch of traditional Danish open-faced sandwiches, Johansen said that for most of his life he hadn't bothered going to services at the "state church," as the Lutheran Church is known here.

"As kids, we were not allowed to make any noise on Sundays," he said. The church seemed to him to place a higher value on order and ancient traditions than on tending to the concerns of parishioners. "The church didn't add any value to me. It gave me nothing I could use in my day-to-day life."

Danish people joke that almost everyone in Denmark is Lutheran but almost no one is religious. On a typical Sunday morning, most of Denmark's 2,100 parish churches are lucky to attract 20 worshipers each.

Karsten Nissen, one of the country's 10 Lutheran bishops, said that a quarter to a third of all people in church in Copenhagen any given Sunday morning are attending a foreign-run service. "These churches are a gift to our Danish Lutheran Church," Nissen said. "They open our eyes to a more human way of being Christians. It's the way we were Christians 100 years ago -- a very simple way, a good way, a more pious way and a more open and happy way of worship."

Denmark's ambivalence on matters of faith spurred a national debate in 2003 after a Danish Lutheran priest admitted publicly that he didn't believe in God. Church officials suspended him for a month, but hundreds of sympathetic parishioners rallied to his defense, saying that a priest didn't have to believe in God to promote Christian values.

"This is a Christian country, but the population has forgotten what that means," said Bess Serner-Pedersen, who runs Alpha Denmark, a private group that offers adult courses in the basics of Christianity, including how to pray and read the Bible.

Serner-Pedersen said that since the 18th-century Enlightenment, which stressed reason and science as means of understanding the divine, European religious teaching has focused more on the intellectual than on the spiritual. "We have a country where the churches are talking to the mind, but we've forgotten that spirituality is about the heart as well," she said. "Our population is looking for churches that are more alive. We need these immigrant churches because they are bringing a message that we have forgotten."

Denmark is a wealthy nation of 5.5 million people that always scores near the top of surveys of the world's happiest nations. To Johansen, the problem is clear: "We're just too well-off in Europe." He earns a good salary working for the Danish shipping giant Maersk, skippering high-powered tugboats. He and his wife, Lene, a lawyer and teacher, have children ages 12, 10 and 7 months, with a minivan and bikes parked in the carport of their bright, sleekly designed home in an orderly suburb.

Johansen's work takes him all over the world, he said, and he has noticed much stronger religious faith in poorer societies. "What we call a crisis here is nothing compared to what people have to cope with in other parts of the world," he said. "We're basically rich and spoiled."

Over coffee and cakes, his friend Ib Johansen said European government leaders were partly to blame for the Continent's waning religious life. In his view, governments have zealously promoted the secular while regarding religious faith as a bit backward: "We're told, 'Grow up, man. Leave that behind. We are doing well now, we don't need God anymore.' "

U.S. Ambassador James P. Cain said that he and his family wanted to go to church shortly after they arrived in Denmark in the summer of 2005. But when they turned up for a scheduled Sunday service at a Danish Lutheran church, they found the door chained and padlocked. The next week, he said, they tried a different Lutheran church, where the entire attendance at the service was nine people -- his family and bodyguards, plus two Danes.

Cain said Denmark's lack of religious culture was partly to blame for last year's Muhammad cartoons controversy, in which a Danish paper published unflattering caricatures of Islam's most revered prophet, touching off Muslim fury around the world.

"That, for the first time in a generation, caused the Danes to realize that their loss of faith and their increasing secularism made it very difficult for them to understand, or even feel empathy for, people who felt offended by caricatures of religious images," Cain said.

'No Judging, No Doomsday Talk'

Stendor Johansen said he had all but given up on religion before he heard about Chandran three years ago. Johansen and his wife went to one of the pastor's Sunday services, then held in a hotel ballroom, and were thrilled. Chandran seemed completely different from staid Lutheran ministers -- not just because of his dark South Asian skin, but because of his sheer enthusiasm for God.

The room was filled to capacity, Johansen recalled. Africans, Asians, Europeans, Americans and Danes were dancing and singing and listening to Chandran preach in his engaging style on topics ranging from current events such as the Iraq war to the meaning of Valentine's Day.

"There was no judging, no doomsday talk," Johansen said. "Ravi made it fun and practical. He was preaching ordinary stuff that everybody needs, not things that happened 2,000 years ago. He brought the Gospel to a level where it fit my life."

On a rainy Sunday morning recently, Chandran stood on a stage in a crisp black shirt and gray blazer and faced his congregation, a wireless microphone headset fixed over his ear. Behind him were a drum set, two electronic keyboards and a 20-by-20-foot video screen. A Mexican man with a laptop and a video projector clicked a few keys to display Bible verses on the massive screen.

Before Chandran sat children wearing baseball caps turned backward, men in ties, women in colorful African dresses, teenagers in jeans and sneakers -- black, white and Asian. Chandran did a quick head count. His 120-strong congregation that day hailed from 33 countries, including 17 in Africa, 6 in Europe, 6 in Asia and 4 in the Americas. Eighteen blond Danes were mixed in among the rest.

"Heaven is going to be very, very colorful," Chandran said, to laughter and more "Amens!"

By Chandran's account, he has preached and done missionary work in 45 countries. He and his wife, Lillian Leow Mui Choo, arrived in Denmark 12 years ago as Pentecostal missionaries sent by a Singaporean church. Five years ago, Chandran decided he wanted to start his own independent church, so he began the ICC as an interdenominational Christian church, which he said now has about 150 regular members.

The church advertises in local newspapers and on television to attract members, but he has to be careful not to offend Danish sensibilities. "Religion is very private here," he said. "Among Danes, you're not allowed to talk about God. But they make an exception for foreigners."

As part of his missionary work, Chandran serves on a local government council that deals with immigrant integration. He also recently joined a government health organization, counseling people with HIV-AIDS and training other counselors. He said both positions allow him to meet many Danes.

"There is a void, an emptiness that people feel that can't be filled with 'stuff,' " he said. "Sometimes there are certain holes that can only be filled with the right peg, and sometimes that is spiritual."

From the stage, Chandran looked out past Johansen and his family, past the beaming black and white faces singing "Amazing Grace," to rows of empty seats toward the back of the 500-seat hall.

In time, Chandran said, he's going to fill every one of them.

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