I n many Western European countries, Christianity has declined more steeply than in the United States and Canada. Religious “nones” now make up more than half of the population in the Netherlands. Even for a Western European country, this is an above-average level of secularization. Yet if current demographic trends continue, the U.S. might not be that far behind. The Pew Research Center recently projected that Christians could make up less than half of the U.S. population within a few decades.
So, what can North American churches learn from what’s happening in Europe right now? And what does the future hold for the church in Europe?
Doug McClintic is a Reformed Church in America missionary focused on European church planting, and Christiaan van Dijk is a church planter in the Netherlands. We asked them for their take on the future of the European church and how the North American church can prepare for ministry in an increasingly secular society. These were their key takeaways.
Western Europe is a mission field
“Until approximately the 1950s, everybody went to church; the church meant something,” said van Dijk, referring to the decline of the church in the Netherlands. “But in the last decades, an exodus has taken place. The church doesn’t mean anything anymore and is completely irrelevant to most people. If you compare the worldview of a Christian with a secular European, [it] is so different that you can say we are facing a real missionary challenge.”
McClintic agrees, predicting that the future of the church in Europe will be marked by a “shift from cultural and historic expressions of Christianity to a posture of pioneer mission engagement.” He anticipates that this new frontier will involve outreach to three groups:
- “Completely secular Europeans with little or no memory of a personal engagement with Christianity.
- “People coming from other major world religions as they migrate to Europe. (Islam and Hinduism are the most prominent examples.)
- “Those who identify as spiritual but not religious.”
European churches are laboratories for connecting with a secular society
European churches are experimenting with different ways of reaching out to people. What they learn about connecting with a secular society could be helpful to churches in other parts of the world grappling with similar challenges, including North America.
“Smaller churches are learning how to contextualize the gospel in reaching out to secular Europeans,” said van Dijk. “You can see these churches as laboratories that are invaluable to learn how to reconnect with secular society. Most of these attempts focus on personal, authentic, and welcoming gatherings.
“Post-modern people are on their guard when people claim to know the truth, and they distrust institutions like the church. But people are still open to having a meaningful and even spiritual conversation. This is where our chances for the church lie.”
Deeper partnership with the Global South
“The future of the church in Europe may be marked by a growing partnership with Christians who are coming from the Global South,” said McClintic.
McClintic is excited about the opportunities for partnerships between local churches and networks to form across continents. He thinks Europeans could learn from the church planting movements in the Global South—countries within Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Oceania—where Christianity is still growing. McClintic also hopes a deeper partnership will prompt “reconciliation for past mistakes by Western believers and a past often marked by colonialism.”
An emphasis on relationships with realistic expectations
Van Dijk has found it’s important to manage your expectations when you’re leading a church in a post-Christian context.
“Most people have never been to church and have no idea how to behave in church,” he said. “People who are moving towards Christ often do not meet our expectations of proper Christian conduct and will not be transformed into saints overnight. This makes it very difficult to introduce new believers, or not-yet-believers, into a church.
“Smaller groups that gather around the Bible during the week can be a great stepping stone before moving to church.”
In the early church, van Dijk says people had mentors who walked alongside them as they learned what Christianity was. Drawing on this model has proven useful in his ministry.
“People respond well to an invitation, as indeed Christ invited his disciples to come and follow him. This requires people to be genuinely interested in and committed to seekers, and it requires the whole body of believers to step up,” van Dijk said.
Unity in Christ’s love, grace, and justice
McClintic hopes that the future of the church in Europe—and North America—will be marked by deepening unity and spiritual dynamics that bring renewal. He believes that bringing this about will require three things:
- “A renewed sense of God’s love and grace and justice expressed in the good news of Jesus Christ.
- “Repentance from the deep divisions of the past.
- “A focus on making disciples out of every tribe, tongue, and nation.”