A mosaic of faith in Europe

by Barbara Swanson

Mosaic: a picture or pattern produced by arranging together small pieces of stone or tile. Also, a combination of diverse elements forming a more or less coherent whole.

Since 2004, I have been accumulating photos that draw attention to the beauty of mosaic tiles. My personal favorites, to date, are found in the cathedral in Aachen, Germany, the oldest sections of which were constructed by the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne around 796. These rich collages of color can also reflect the religious heritage of Europe. In our adopted homeland, Belgium, the mosaic is still growing and changing. Historically a Roman Catholic land, the message of reformation took root here early and quickly. After Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press appeared in Germany, the Belgian city of Antwerp became the second city to print and publish copies of the Bible in different languages. The English reformer William Tyndale fled to Belgium after publishing his English version of the Holy Scriptures. Unfortunately the wave of repression that accompanied the Catholic Reformation forced many Protestants to move to the Netherlands and left a rigid, impersonal church in its place. The secularization of the church by Napoleon created a further distance for many Europeans from a living faith in God.

Disillusionment with the institution of the church is very common among many Europeans today. Instead of arguing with them about church history, we delight in surprising them with the question, “Can we talk about Jesus?” We rarely use the word “Christian” to introduce ourselves in Belgium, but choose to say that we are followers of Jesus. That often opens a door to talk about the person and work of Jesus and avoids the barriers that religion often creates.

Let me introduce you to Fatima, a young woman whom we met for the first time on Easter Sunday 2013. Her first words at our lunch table were: “I am not looking for another religion.” I learned during my years working among the Fulani people (nomadic Muslim cattle herders in Central African Republic), to look for the ones who have Jesus in their eyes. Our guest already had Jesus in her eyes before she left her homeland in the Middle East. During the following weeks, Fatima met many more followers of Jesus. She was already searching for truth in her homeland, but now in Belgium, she was able to meet her savior. Fatima’s life demonstrates the transforming power of the gospel at work in post-Christian Europe. It all started with a simple conversation about Jesus.

Now let me introduce you to Gerard and Petra, local Belgians who came to check out the church across the street. Having grown up in the Belgian Catholic church, raising their children in the local village parish where they still regularly attend on Saturdays, they might not seem like the obvious candidates for the category “most likely to attend an English-speaking congregation which meets in a school auditorium.” Yet when they received a flyer in their mailbox announcing the fiftieth anniversary of the Antwerp International Protestant Church, their curiosity became concrete action. It has been a delight to watch the love of Jesus enfold them and draw them out of their Belgian reserve. Every Sunday, Petra is the first one to welcome a newcomer with the kiss of greeting. They still identify themselves as Catholic, but now they also feel connected to the 140 people from 38 different nations who worship at their doorstep every Sunday. They are part of the grand mosaic of those who love Jesus and delight to be his followers.

God is still creating the mosaic of faith in Europe. The pieces come from many lands, cultures and religious traditions. What binds us together is the person of Jesus. And that never changes.

NOTE: The names in this article have been changed for confidentiality.

Barbara and Steve Swanson live in Antwerp, Belgium, where Steve pastors the Antwerp International Protestant Church and Barbara works with the Mosaics Project of Covenant World Mission. For more information about their ministries, including pictures of mosaics: www.mosaicimages.blogspot.be, and www.aipchurch.org

See all articles by Barbara Swanson