Europe and the Decline of the Church

In a recent article I discussed the growing trend of Christians leaving church (mainly in America), while still remaining followers of Jesus. They have found other ways to fellowship and grow together with other Christians, but they are basically “done” with church.

That article obviously touched a raw nerve, with over 200 comments and well over 10,000 likes. As I had to say in a comment, “I of course nowhere in this article said that it was necessarily a good thing that people are leaving church (but not Christ). I merely pointed out the reality of this situation, and suggested a few reasons as to why this might be the case. I also clearly said that we must pray for our pastors and leaders. And of course I did mention Heb. 10:25 and the need to have some sort of regular fellowship.”

That article can be found here:

Many of the comments found there demonstrate that there is a lack of clarity as to just what exactly the church means, and how it relates to, but differs from, the body of Christ, the Kingdom of God, and so on. Given that entire libraries have been filled seeking to discuss such issues, I certainly did not attempt that there – nor will I here.

holland 3Thus this article must be seen in the same light. I am not trying here to offer detailed pros or cons of the de-churching of Europe. Christianity, as we know, can thrive even with empty church buildings. However, it is still a matter of some concern that the once cradle of Christianity in the world is now all but an empty shell. Let me offer some details on this by presenting the opening paragraphs of a recent article:

Two dozen scruffy skateboarders launched perilous jumps in a soaring old church building here on a recent night, watched over by a mosaic likeness of Jesus and a solemn array of stone saints. This is the Arnhem Skate Hall, an uneasy reincarnation of the Church of St. Joseph, which once rang with the prayers of nearly 1,000 worshipers.
It is one of hundreds of churches, closed or threatened by plunging membership, that pose a question for communities, and even governments, across Western Europe: What to do with once-holy, now-empty buildings that increasingly mark the countryside from Britain to Denmark?
The Skate Hall may not last long. The once-stately church is streaked with water damage and badly needs repair; the city sends the skaters tax bills; and the Roman Catholic Church, which still owns the building, is trying to sell it at a price they can’t afford.
“We’re in no-man’s-land,” says Collin Versteegh, the youthful 46-year-old who runs the operation, rolling cigarettes between denouncing local politicians. “We have no room to maneuver anywhere.” The Skate Hall’s plight is replicated across a continent that long nurtured Christianity but is becoming relentlessly secular.
The closing of Europe’s churches reflects the rapid weakening of the faith in Europe, a phenomenon that is painful to both worshipers and others who see religion as a unifying factor in a disparate society. “In these little towns, you have a cafe, a church and a few houses—and that is the village,” says Lilian Grootswagers, an activist who fought to save the church in her Dutch town. “If the church is abandoned, we will have a huge change in our country.”
Trends for other religions in Europe haven’t matched those for Christianity. Orthodox Judaism, which is predominant in Europe, has held relatively steady. Islam, meanwhile, has grown amid immigration from Muslim countries in Africa and the Middle East. The number of Muslims in Europe grew from about 4.1% of the total European population in 1990 to about 6% in 2010, and it is projected to reach 8%, or 58 million people, by 2030, according to Washington’s Pew Research Center.

A number of things can be mentioned here. One is the mass secularisation of Europe and how a once mighty continent has fallen. Europe at one time was the centre of gravity for world Christianity, but today it is our most pagan land and our greatest mission field.

And of course spiritual vacuums will always be quickly filled. Secular humanism cannot do the job, so we see Islam filling the void – big time. This is in large measure because of faulty immigration and multiculturalism policies. But people will always reach out for some sort of spirituality, even if it is a false and barbaric one like Islam.

When I was in Europe and England last year, I was often asked what my spiritual prognosis was for these places. My reply usually went something like this: “I suspect that in the near term it will likely get worse. But God is a God of the long term, and should Christ tarry, things may get better in the long haul. But much of that will depend on God’s people, and what they do with the time given them.”

Things are looking very grim indeed in the UK and Europe, but God never leaves himself without a witness. I have seen that firsthand, having been a missionary to Europe some 35 years ago. Things looked very black back then, but a later visit demonstrated that God is still at work.

When I lived in Holland in the early 80s things were about as low as you could go in terms of biblical Christianity. But a 2009 visit surprised me and greatly encouraged me as I learned about what God was still doing in that nation. I have told that story elsewhere, but let me share a bit of it here:

It is the revitalisation of the church in the nation that is especially intriguing. There are now numerous evangelical churches in Holland with large and thriving congregations. One church in Amsterdam has over 2000 members. Such numbers were unheard of a few decades ago.
And the amazing thing is, many of these large and spiritually vital churches are led by migrants who have come to Holland. The large Amsterdam church has as its head pastor an African. Indeed, many of these big churches are being led by Nigerians and Ghanaians.
Missionaries and church planters from places such as South Korea, Brazil and Uganda are doing great works for God in the Netherlands and throughout Europe. Indeed, when I was staying at a Youth With a Mission base in Amsterdam just the other week, a large South Korean disciple training school was in full swing.

So the Christian faith has gone full circle over the centuries. Europe was once a missionary-sending continent, reaching out to the rest of the world. Now people from the developing world are returning the favour, and re-evangelising a very dark and secular Europe. God is still at work.

Nonetheless, the article I link to here about Europe’s empty churches is still so very shocking in so many ways. Seeing once great churches now becoming mere skateboard parks really does show in graphic fashion just how far down the gurgler the church in Europe has gone.

How God must grieve over a once great land which is now so very far from Him. But God has not abandoned Europe, and Christian workers from around the world are there, seeking to once again see God glorified as the gospel is shared and disciples are made.

We may again see so many lives changed that nations will again be transformed, just as we saw so long ago. May it be so Lord. And show us what role we might play in making this a reality.

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19 Replies to “Europe and the Decline of the Church”

  1. The whole world is Christ’s Mission-field, but our families and neighbourhoods are OUR OWN particular starting-place. In our homes, amongst our friends, in our offices, workplaces, and local shopping centres, in our sporting and leisure groups, Christian believers are called to be witnesses of God’s Presence and Love (“He gives to us, so we can give to others too…”). St Francis de Sales likened the positive power of a smile (compared with a snarl) to bees producing honey, whilst St Francis of Assisi claimed to be always preaching – even sometimes using words!

  2. Isn’t there a case to be made that these big cathedrals were the home of the Catholic and High-Anglican church? The last I read, both were in decline.
    As you note, there is a Charismatic revival in Holland. This would be more likely occurring in buildings that are not necessarily identified as churches or in homes as is the case in China, Asia, the West, etc. We probably don’t have up to date statistics, but are the Charismatic churches still increasing in Australia?
    In some places in Australia, real estate agents sell or receive requests for former churches, particularly in country areas. Some places that have a modest population, have once or bi-monthly visits from clergy.
    I would hazard a guess that the number of missionaries in Australia would be, per population, among the very lowest in the world.
    In WHAT HAPPENED TO WORSHIP, A.W. Tozer (1978: 85) wrote: “There are churches existing merely as monuments of what they used to be. The glory has departed. The witness of God and of salvation and of eternal life is now just an uncertain sound. The monument is there, but the church has failed.”
    In this era of the Dispensation of the Holy Spirit, there are many churches whose clergy don’t believe in Him and don’t preach Him, who also don’t believe in the Gifts of the Spirit, e.g., healing for today and miracles, etc, and who are, as Tozer says, monuments to Man’s leadership. They don’t want to be shaken. “There is no call for that,” they say, but the Scripture says that this world will be shaken and what will fall will fall. What and who will stand?
    When worship of the Holy Spirit returns to churches, things may improve and numbers increase, because a dead church service is not going anywhere, except pleasing those who need to go somewhere on a Sunday morning and feel like they have attended to their obligation.
    I have been a missionary in a remote place for seven years. It has been hard going, particularly against alcoholism, but more so, the old enemy, apathy, while every excuse is made to go anywhere but to a place of worship and in the case of a dead church, who can blame them?
    Nothing of which I write is an armchair observation. I have heard the thunder on the plains. If you have any answers to my questions, I’d appreciate them.

  3. I’ve recently returned from China after a 3 year stay. A country almost completely devoid of religion. Amazingly the people and their actions are not so different from any other person in the world. I think there is nothing to fear for the loss of churches. Religion, to me, just seems to be another variation on the idea of family. In China, family is a significant part of their culture. I would say we, like China, may actually benefit from the decline of religion and churches. It may just force us to find our ‘fellowship’ elsewhere in friends, family and those in our community, without having to label ourselves as “Religion A” or “Religion B” which just seems to cause separation amongst fellow humans.

    I know this is a pretty religious blog, so I should say I don’t mean to offend anybody. But after reading this blog entry, that is simply what came to my mind.

    After returning from an experience in a truly secular and a still very wholesome country, there is a stark contrast which suggests how superfluous religion can seem in a nation’s/individual’s life.

  4. It is alright Bill, we know from scriptures that the gate leading to life is narrow and few are they who will find it. We also know from scriptures that we are only to work away, one person at a time, we also know that Christ will be with us as we work in our tiny part of HIS field.

    It kind of reminds me of the story of the woman picking up star fish and throwing them back into the sea, when asked why she bothered seeing as she could only save a few, she answered as she picked up another one, “well it matters to this one” and threw it into the ocean.

    We have always been, are now and will be until Christ’s return, outnumbered, hated, vilified, ignored and in some worst times persecuted and handed over to be murdered in cold blood. But if God is with us, who can stand against us, answer, no one.

  5. Thanks Frederick. But your quite ahistorical rewriting of China and religion of course must be challenged. China has always been hugely religious, with Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and more recently Christianity being a major part of Chinese life for millennia.

    And you of course very conveniently omit the fact that for over a half century now the atheist Communist rulers have done all they can to eliminate religion in China. Mao is responsible for the death of some 35 million people. Sorry, it is not religion which is the problem, but godless ideologies like political atheism which you seem to think are so peachy. And in a dozen years or so it is estimated that there will be more Christians living in China than anywhere else in the world.

    So your very narrow and blinkered view of things is not all that helpful to be honest as to telling us what is really happening in China. It may be time for you to get out of your antireligious cocoon. It seems to be blinding you to how the real world in fact actually operates.

  6. Frederick, it’s difficult to take what you write seriously.

    You seem to believe that atheistic naturalism is the underlying cause of the freedoms you enjoy in the West but to do this you obviously ignore the two most prominent and pure expressions of your atheistic naturalist religion – Nazism and Communism. The former sought to purify humanity according to the logical dictates of Darwinian evolution while the later had grand delusions of an enforced socialised utopia. Between them, they murdered well over a hundred million people and started the most destructive war in history.

    That’s your atheistic religion hard at work!

    The reality is that when atheism gains traction in a society, morals go out the window as the logical out working of evolution takes hold – self-serving attitudes and behaviour. When atheism gains political power in a society, people end up dead starting with easy victims like unborn children but as you would do well to research, your religion always seeks to throw others into the mix – the disabled, the elderly, and eventually anyone who stands up to those wielding the power – especially Christians.

    The West is still riding the coattails of a society and culture significantly shaped by bible believing Christians, especially in laws and morality. While the wealth and technology in Western nations can serve as a pretty facade, anyone with eyes can see our culture is rotting inside.

    America’s inevitable default on its debt should unveil the moral character that a century and a half of atheistic naturalism has formed in the West – it won’t be nearly as flattering as you imply.

    Perhaps you should reconsider the self sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as the solution to the animosity and immorality atheism instills in its adherents.

  7. Frederick, Europe is such a bastion of goodness, it is not like it has been the source of two World Wars which created the greatest loss of life and lets not forget it is the birthplace of Communism which was the most murderous ideology ever thought of. This is what happens when the Spiritual vacuum exists and it if filled with something not to do with Christianity.

  8. Remember that many of us are products of the diaspora of Christian religion and culture from Europe. (Mtt. 28.19f.). Yet “How are they to hear without a preacher?” (Rom.10)…
    In 1814, the Gospel was first preached in New Zealand by Rev.Samuel Marsden at Oihi Bay in Northland on Christmas Day : “Behold! I bring you glad tidings of great joy.” (Lk.2:10). And two centuries later, the light of faith is still alive in NZ, but the solid Christian foundations of belief, worship, service, morality and law established by the early missionaries and colonial settlers have been and are being eroded by atheistic and secularist forces in the name of reason and enlightenment. Huxley’s “Brave New World” is really as much a problem in the “colonies” as in Europe…

  9. Hi Bill – I heard a Christian philosopher lecture on this topic, and he said that if we in the West don’t turn back to God, it may be that He will allow us to be overrun and withdraw His protection from us. And he suggested God may allow this to happen by means of the Muslims. I feel we have to be prepared for some tough challenges, but that we should never let fear get the best of us because if we stick with Christ, He will stick with us. Another point is that faithful Christians may have to suffer along with the rest of the nation when most of the nation turns away from God. Sort of like we all had to share in Adam’s sin. We are all brothers and all one human family and at some level we all sink or swim together on the worldly national level. On the other hand, our faithfulness to Christ can also bless our nation, so the more of us are faithful to Christ the better. We will never be defeated ultimately, because Christ will not abandon us, but we already see brave Christians suffering for standing for Christ. But God has said “Eye has not seen nor ear heard nor has it entered into the mind of man what God has prepared for those who love Him” and other such scriptures to keep us strong and even joyful even in the midst of suffering.

  10. Neil,
    Thank you for reminding us agin of the pioneering work od Samuel Marsden in NZ, and the 200th anniversary of his inaugural sermon on Christmas Day, 1814. I drew attention to this very important anniversary in a post on this site on Christmas Eve, ten days ago, but it drew only one response – from a certain Graeme Mitchell. See:
    Why the minimal response or comment I’m not sure. Perhaps it is because people here in Australia have bought into the highly negative image of Marsden created by his enemies both at the time and since.

    On the contrary, anniversaries such as this need to be marked and noted with thanksgiving to God, especially if we on this site are going to be serious about recovering our heritage, both here and in NZ, as we loudly profess. We must know therefore what that heritage is, and take a serious interest.

    Thank you again, Neil, for your reminder.

  11. I was at the Marsden Cross at Oihi Bay back in September, along with my wife and another Christian couple travelling with us. With the 200th anniversary coming up it was most heartwarming then to think of that memorable day when Samuel Marsden preached his inaugural sermon: truly one of the great moments in Church history!

    I am as I write deciphering Marsden’s handwritten sermons for publication along with a biography and analysis of his theological emphases. It is hard slog (really!), and some encouragement would be appreciated, especially from those on this site, instead of the almost deafening silence!

    The sermons I have so far transcribed make for good and edifying reading, and it has been a joy in one way to undertake this project, although at times his handwriting is almost impenetrable. I trust that others will find them just as worthy of reading when they come into print.

  12. Thanks Murray, I completely agree with your statement that ‘anniversaries such as this need to be marked and noted with thanksgiving to God, especially if we on this site are going to be serious about recovering our heritage, both here and in NZ, as we loudly profess. We must know therefore what that heritage is, and take a serious interest.’

    As a resident of the Parramatta district for the past 30 years, I have a special interest in Rev. Samuel Marsden because he was based here for much of the time. In fact Governor Macquarie declared that Marsden should be regarded ‘as the resident chaplain in that district.’

    So press on with the sermon transcriptions as I for one look forward to reading them when this project of yours is completed.

  13. Thanks again, Neil. I press on. So far I have done five full sermons, each about 25 handwritten pages, plus some assorted fragments. I will be going back to Moore College later this month for more. Perhaps we could meet?

  14. It’s so sad to see churches turned into video hire shops. Says it all about the culture really.

  15. Dear Bill, Thank you for your excellent article. It is very sad to see lovely church buildings once filled with people singing and praising and thanking God now filled with skaters who most probably do not give our good and merciful God a second’s thought from one day to the next.

    If I may I would like to share with you and your readers my own experience.In 1968 when I first arrived in Western Australia the congregation in my Catholic parish church mostly represented the Italian and Irish communities in the district together with a few Australian and English families. Forty seven years later at the same church I know Catholics from India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Philipines, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Africa and South America and the fellowship we share with them is truly wonderful. This is especially through an organisation in the Catholic Church which I belong to called The Legion of Mary.This organisation started by an Irishman in the 1920’s encourages prayer,spiritual formation, fellowship and good work amongst its members and it really works.Sadly there are no Irish in the praesidium.

    Through my association with them I have found that immigrants from Africa, Asia and India whether they are Christian or not are inclined to the spiritual which can only benefit this country in the long term. One man I know was Hindu and converted to Catholicism through the love he was shown by Legionaries and love is the only way. As it says in the Bible “They will know we are Christians by our Love”.

    There are still a few older Irish and Italians attending our church but sadly many of the younger people from those communities have lapsed and no longer bother to go to Mass or have anything to do with the church.

    One lady from the Kerala district in India who has not lived in Australia long told me Indian Christians look to their local Church for support of every kind Hinduism being the main religion in India.However, Catholic Churches dotted around WA in the little country towns and it would apply to other states too were once always full on Sundays and some sturdy little stone churches were built by the determination and perseverance of the people.Some of these churches can now sadly only have Mass on occasional Sundays because of dwindling numbers of Mass goers and the shortage and ageing of priests. However, having said that I have found on my travels around our big state over the years that there are always a few devoted, pious souls in these little towns who faithfully clean the church every week, decorate the altar with flowers, keep the grounds tidy and welcome visitors who are passing through with a friendly word and cup of tea.In one far flung country parish a board was put out for visitors passing by from the Nullabor informing them that Mass would be celebrated at 12pm that Sunday with fellowship afterwards.In another town I visited a parishioner told me she drove the elderly parish priest who was saying Mass to other parishes to keep him going longer.She had faith enough to know that only a priest could say Mass and therefore bring her what all Catholics are supposed to believe and that is the True Presence in the body and blood of Jesus. These humble souls in my opinion are not just faithful but persevering in the only thing which in the end really matters in life, loving God and their neighbour.They are doing this by doing the simple, everyday tasks that God wants us to do.

    It would be all too easy to give up church going as so many have done but our God deserves better. He deserves our thanks and praise and for me it can only be done properly at Mass on Sundays and there is the added bonus of knowing some lovely people.

  16. I was well aware of Europe’s descent into secularism before I went there for 3 weeks in December 2013. What did surprise me, however, was that I was there during the Advent season, and while I can’t recall any blatant Santa/Father Christmas displays or presentations, I was very aware of the proliferation of carefully crafted nativity scenes. One of the ornate town halls I visited in Marburg, Germany, was running a competition for the best nativity set. These were crafted with much thought and care in some instances – like massive train layouts – while others were simple yet powerful. And in all cities I visited, the busiest stalls at the Christmas Markets were those selling Krippenfiguren (Crib figurines) for crafting such nativity scenes. So although it is a very secular continent, I was aware all the time that it was actually the Advent season – more so than I was aware of it this past December in Australia. In both Geneva and Vienna I was blessed to just walk into a church in each city, straight off the street, to an Advent carol singing evening.

    This past year I have also been receiving regular updates from the link below – an active world-wide church planting movement, and as you will see, Europe is well represented among them for the emergence of new works. Of course, new churches are one thing, but growing them into deep, Word-rich, discipling churches who nurture new planters is another. God certainly hasn’t finished with Europe yet.

  17. As one who worships at an Anglican church I would question if the old European order of church is now capable of reaching a modern community?

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