The Wall Street Journal recently featured an excellent article by Andrew Higgins entitled In Europe, God Is (Not) Dead. While the author acknowledges that secularism has certainly done its worst over the last five decades to the point that most churches in Europe are either empty or aged; there are signs of new life within the European Church as well as indicators that Europeans are increasingly open to religion.
Higgins points out that “belief in heaven, hell and concepts such as the soul has risen in parts of Europe, especially among the young, according to surveys. Religion, once a dead issue now figures prominently in public discourse.” Ed Vitigliano, writing for the AFA Journal adds, “For evidence that Christianity is not dead in Europe, one need look no further than what is arguably the continent’s most culturally liberal nation – the Netherlands.” Dutch author Joshua Livestro writing in The Weekly Standard makes the point that despite the dominant idea “that secularization is the irreversible wave of the future,” there appears to be underway what he called “a Dutch relapse into religiosity.”
Vitigliano adds, “According to a study … titled The Future of God, there are two main trends within Dutch Christianity: ‘Liberal Protestantism is in its death throes. It will be replaced by a new orthodoxy.’” Livestro agrees, saying “there’s no question that liberal Christianity is dying in the Netherlands, as the numbers of people attending mainline church services continue to tumble.” Livestro adds, “Census figures show that the membership of mainline Protestant churches “declined from 23% of the population in the late 1950s to 6% today.” And, “according to government estimates, by 2020 this figure will have dwindled to a mere 2%.”
However, Vitigliano points out that despite declining church membership, “Statistics released by the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) indicate that a slight majority of people in the Netherlands (52%) claim to be Christian. Even the Social and Cultural Planning Agency (SCP), which uses a much stricter definition in compiling numbers, said the percentage of Dutch Christians is still probably around the 40% mark.”
Philip Jenkins, professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, was quoted in The Catholic World Reporter as saying, “In all the major churches, including the state churches, there are smaller hardcore activist minority movements, like the evangelical congregations within the Church of England, some Lutheran movements, but above all these new religious movements, new religious orders within the Roman Catholic Church.”
The growth of Christianity in Europe is occurring in two distinct areas. The first is immigration. Often thought to be the exclusive domain of Islam, Livestro points out, “In the past decade, Muslim immigration has been overtaken by a larger stream of immigrants, namely Christians from Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe.” In fact, “an SCP estimate puts the number of Christian immigrants in Holland at around 700,000 (out of a total population of 16 million) – and rising fast. Recent immigration reports suggest that for every new Muslim (There are currently 1 million Muslims living in Holland) moving to Holland, there are at least two new Christian immigrants,” according to Livestro.
Philip Jenkins says similar trends are cropping up elsewhere. “There is a huge network of immigrant churches, in Britain certainly, but also in basically every country there are some very large congregations. When people look at immigrant areas in France, they tend just to see Muslims, but a lot of the folks are actually black Christians … and they really provide a whole alternative religious structure across Europe. In London on an average Sunday, somewhere between 50 and 60% of people in church are nonwhite, and a lot of those are very recent immigrants.”
The second area of growth is in what some describe as “upstart churches.” Unlike the United States, the European state has always played a significant [and unhealthy] role in the church. Our Founding Fathers wisely understood the pitfalls of a government-regulated church. Prior to 1776, church membership in America was only around 17 percent when 11 of the 13 colonies had a state-established or “favored” church. (Some scholars place the estimate of church attendance as low as 5 percent.) Following ratification of the new Constitution, this state control ended, the Second Great Awakening began, and a period of unbridled church and denominational growth followed well into the 20th century.
Some theorize that Europe’s “regulation” of the church has actually stifled spiritual growth in the same way that state regulation of business stifles free-market economics. Rodney Stark, a social sciences professor at Baylor University and proponent of what some refer to as the “supply-side” theory relative to religion, argues that people are naturally religious but that their religiosity depends on the vigor of religious suppliers. In Europe, this “vigor” has all but been vanquished by the state established monopoly of mainline churches. Stefan Swärd, a leader in Sweden’s evangelical movement says “the state has undermined the church from within.” Not surprising when you realize that many of the government officials and governing board members appointed to “oversee” the church are non-believers—they are merely bureaucrats running what they perceive to be nothing more than another social services arm of the government. Furthermore this condition has, in effect, rendered the church dependent on the state. State-sponsored churches receive millions of dollars through taxes and state levies. They have not had to rely solely on tithing parishioners. Not much faith involved in that.
However, with the overhaul of government funding for churches, the state-sponsored religious monopoly is beginning to crack and there are new and unconventional church models entering “the market.” These “upstart” churches have much greater appeal among the youth of Europe in particular, who have little interest in the liberal, state-sponsored churches. With an emphasis on Jesus, contemporary worship, and cultural engagement, these “upstart” churches are luring more and more young people out of the postmodern despair that has overtaken the continent.
If there is any lesson from the European experience; I think it is this: the Church should be careful never to rely on anything but the Living God. It is an institution of God and for God and therefore should guard itself from dependence upon human means and measures. While we, in America, may never see a state-established religious monopoly or government funding for churches, we can and often do rely too heavily on the “tools of modernity”—those human ingenuities such as growth strategies, personality-driven pulpits, and therapeutic and managerial techniques. That is not to say that the church should resist innovation and technology that serves to advance the kingdom, merely that our confidence must always remain in Christ alone. As Os Guinness so aptly states, “…the insights and tools of modernity can be so brilliant and effective that there no longer appears to be any need for God.” It would appear that the church in Europe became too reliant upon the state and in so doing it no longer needed God and as a result, the culture no longer need the church.
If the American church becomes too reliant on the tools of modernity, as it is enticed to do in our consumer-driven culture, then we too may live as if we no longer need God and like our European brethren, American culture will finally find it no longer needs the church. Fortunately, just as the growth of the Church does not rely on men, neither does her preservation. There is simply the matter of faithfulness.
© 2007 by S. Michael Craven
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S. Michael Craven is the Founding Director of the Center for Christ & Culture
Michael lives in the Dallas area with his wife Carol and their three children.