By most popular North American accounts, the European church is dying. Old, tired and running out of energy. Soon the last generation will turn off the lights.
It is also possible to look at the European church as going ahead of us into fresh territory, pioneers of a new age, being the first of the Christian family to face a situation the U.S. will face in a generation or two: that of a post-Christian world. Throughout the history of Christianity, churches have come and gone. Cultures that once were Christianized have put their alliances elsewhere — think of northern Africa. But never before in the history of Christianity has a culture that was Christianized consciously turned its back not just to the church, but to religion and spirituality in general. That is what is happening in Europe right now.
The Netherlands is a case in point. According to the 2016 results of “God in the Netherlands,” a decennial sociological report on the state of religion in the Netherlands, 82 percent of the population never visits a church, and only 14 percent believe in a personal God. Twenty-five percent claim to be atheist, and 31 percent identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Interestingly, and against all expectations, the latter group shrunk from 40 percent in 2006. It seems that being spiritual but not religious is a phase in people’s lives rather than a final station. It’s hard to maintain religiosity on one’s own.
These numbers are not terribly different from the official membership demographics of the churches. The same report notes that 12.8 percent of the population is a member of one of the Protestant churches in the country, 11.7 percent of the population is a member of the Roman Catholic Church, 0.8 percent is a member of a Christian church from another tradition, and 6.9 percent adheres to a non-Christian religion, of which Muslims make the largest group with 4.9 percent. Almost all adherents of non-Christian religion have an immigrant background, and there are no signs these religions have any attraction on the indigenous Dutch population. In fact, 67.8 percent of the population is unchurched. Looking at church membership among the generations that came of age in the 1960s and later, that number will soon grow to 80 percent.
Instead of being discouraged by these numbers, Dutch churches are trying to use this circumstance as an opportunity for renewal. Old congregations are engaged in missional redevelopment. And while having to close churches, over the last eight years the largest Protestant denomination in the country, the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, also started 84 church plants – “pioneering places,” as the church calls them – as new expressions of Christian community for people who don’t belong to existing congregations.
How does a church do that? In a post-Christian world, how do Christian communities function? How does the church continue to exist, but more pertinent, how does the church still reach out to its surroundings?
To find out about this, a group of students and alumni of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and its Church Planting Initiative traveled recently to the Netherlands to see what we could learn from the Dutch church. We visited multiple church plants in Amsterdam, where the church is now, in the words of a local pastor, “ministering to the grandchildren of the lost son” – as for this many generations the relationship between church and people already has been lost. We visited a 15th century congregation in Rotterdam, from whose church building once the Speedwell (companion to the Mayflower) left for the New World. Today, the church is nationally known for its missionally redeveloped ministry. One of its pastors is called mostly for witness to the congregation’s Muslim neighbors, and another leads a new intercultural church plant in an economically deprived neighborhood. And we made a visit to the small farming community of Jorwert, where the early 12th century church building has become the base for a new monastic movement led by the local pastor.
Reflecting on our experiences, we noticed at least three things.
First, rather than seeing their old sanctuaries as relics of a past age, Dutch congregations seem to embrace them as means for missional outreach. For example, each week a congregation in the center of Amsterdam turns part of its 1925 sanctuary into a public library. Right below the pulpit, offering people the same view of the building the pastor normally has, the church puts up some bookshelves, tables and chairs, and invites people to come, sit, read and ponder while soaking in the character and meaning of the place.
Another congregation with an historic sanctuary in the middle of Amsterdam’s shopping district opens up each Friday evening, inviting people to participate in a service of prayer, Scripture reading and music. Visitors gather around a huge brass sculpture of a burning bush, specifically commissioned for this goal and matching the enormous antique chandeliers hanging from the sanctuary’s ceiling. The pastor, who greets the people at the door in her black Geneva gown, is ready to switch the language of the service from Dutch to English or German depending on who walks through the doors. Congregants are invited to light a candle and place it with the hundreds of cups that light up the sculpture, as a way of engaging the holiness of the place.
Likewise, the new worshipping community in Jorwert, Frysland, opens its unheated medieval church building every Wednesday morning for a host of visitors from the wider area who, sitting on wooden chairs gathered around a stone communion table, engage in a simple service of word and song in Frisian, Dutch and English.
In all these cases the community trusts in the power of its sanctuary to reach even those who have been completely estranged from the Christian faith. Maybe the best illustration is a story told us by Bas van der Graaf, pastor of the Jerusalem Church in Amsterdam West and appointed by the Protestant Church of Amsterdam as mentor to multiple pioneering places in the city. Some years ago the church was asked if its sanctuary could be used for movie nights for the neighborhood. The organization putting these nights together was not church related. Of course this raised questions. What if the movies were not in line with the church’s values and beliefs? But the church decided to take a chance. As my group of students would later reflect: The church decided to trust in the holiness and power of its sanctuary to be a witness to the gospel even if it were a host to secular movies. That trust was not in vain. Just in the week before we visited, Van der Graaf had received an email from someone admitted to a local hospital. The patient wrote he had recently been diagnosed with incurable cancer. He and his wife had no connection with the Christian faith – he identified as agnostic, she was an atheist. But they had been visiting the movie nights, and during those nights the sanctuary had become quite meaningful to them. He now requested to be buried by the church. All this led to Van der Graaf visiting the man and his wife in the hospital, actually praying with them and Van der Graaf being invited to do the man’s funeral. “Of course,” Van der Graaf added: “The Dutch situation is perfectly illustrated by what they said next. They hoped it would not be a hindrance that the patient was going to be euthanized the next week. I decided to cross that bridge later.”
Many American church renewal specialists bemoan the burden that our aging buildings place upon our congregations. Buckets full of money and countless volunteer hours are devoted to buildings that do not reflect the current needs of congregations and that do not speak to new generations. A missional congregation should rather meet its community in “third spaces” — coffee shops, bars, etc. If buildings are at all useful, it is to become third spaces themselves — meeting spaces for other parties (and usually it is not the sanctuaries themselves that are used for this, but rather auxiliary rooms of the church building). The Dutch attitude seemed rather different. Sanctuaries themselves were treated as mission ground — thin spaces where God’s presence could be trusted to outweigh the noise of daily life and to speak even to those for whom the language of faith has become a foreign language. Of course, it is easier to trust in the sacred power of one’s church building when it has seen and survived seven centuries rather than seven decades. But as the Dutch seem to rely not so much on the age of their building as on the enduring power of a house of prayer and divine presence, this invites us on this side of the pond to rethink the opportunities embedded in our buildings as well.
A second thing we noticed was the willingness of Dutch church communities to live with porous membership boundaries. The most prominent example we encountered was Hoop voor Noord, an 11-year-old church plant in the north of Amsterdam. In the first worship service this congregation ever held, music was led by a street rapper whom the pastor had met on the streets. The man was not a Christian, but was looking for a gig, and so the pastor pulled him in. Since then, a significant number of musicians, sound technicians and children’s workers are consciously recruited from among non-Christian acquaintances of the community. “At least here they run the risk to meet Jesus,” argues the pastor. When presbytery recently met at this church’s sanctuary, he offered his visitors a multi-ethnic dinner prepared and served up by a variety of non-Christian immigrants the church had befriended within its neighborhood. Muslim women in headscarves filled up the plates of pastors dressed in traditional black suits.
The flipside of Hoop voor Noord’s willingness to work with porous membership boundaries was expressed by Arjan Markus, the pastor of the Pilgrim Fathers Church in Delfshaven, Rotterdam, a 15th-century parish nationally known for its missional outreach. The only way to engage our unchurched neighbors is to acknowledge the reasonableness and attractiveness of a secular worldview, Markus argues. “Some afternoons I will ride my bike home from church and wonder: ‘Yeah, why not? Why would I not be an atheist?’ Secularization is not just something that is ‘out there’ – it is something that resonates deeply in the hearts of church folks no less than within their secular neighbors.” In other words, living with porous borders is not just a matter of being hospitable to the stranger in our midst, but also to allow for the otherness in ourselves.
A final example we encountered in the Frysian Nykleaster (“New Cloister”). It is a community that welcomes a wide range of people: traditional believers and folks without religion, people right at the center of the Christian faith and people at the edge. Nykleaster consciously harkens back to the medieval church in which the parish structure was accompanied by a great diversity of monasteries. In the Reformation, the Protestant church continued the parish model but abolished the cloister communities. Nykleaster suggests that secularization is causing the parish structure to unravel, so it will be helpful to re-erect some of the old monastic tradition. Interestingly though, these new monasteries are imagined to play the exact opposite role as they played in medieval times. Then, the parish was the community that embraced everyone – committed and on the edge, faithful and involved in name only. As such, the parish was the church’s missional outreach. The monastery was the community of those who wanted to commit their lives to the faith more fully. Now, new monasteries are the church’s missional means. Those for whom the threshold of the traditional parish has become too high may accept the welcome of a low-key community of hospitality and peace.
In the background of this approach to membership and boundaries lays the ecclesiology of the Netherlands Reformed Church, the national church of the Netherlands (which was renamed the Protestant Church in the Netherlands in 2001, after a merger with two smaller denominations). Characteristic for the NRC was the belief that the church is not constituted by voluntary adherence of its members, but by divine covenant. One is a member of the church not because of one’s personal decision, but because God has drawn one in through the waters of baptism. The church’s understanding of membership was so expansive that even non-baptized children of baptized members were put on its rolls – after all, so the reasoning was, these children have been born and live within the context of God’s covenantal work. God shows steadfast love to the thousandth generations of those who love God (Exodus 20:6). Combined with a parish model according to which every square inch of the country was assigned to a local congregation, a good percentage of the population that hardly ever graced the inside of the church with its presence was nonetheless counted as subject to the church’s pastoral care. Secularization has forced the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, the NRC’s successor, to give up on the traditional parish model. Large parts of the country have become “white spots” on the ecclesial map, no longer covered by any congregation. But the theological intuitions about church membership still reflect this expansive understanding of God’s presence and work.
Finally, we noticed that the newly found missional attention has the potential to overcome old and tired oppositions within the church itself. I grew up in the Netherlands and was trained for ministry there about 20 years ago. At that time, “mission” was one of the ideas about which polemics between left and right galvanized. It is fascinating to see that, at this point, church planting doesn’t seem to be owned by either the “left” or the “right.” People from a great variety of backgrounds carry the movement.
Pastor Margrietha Reinders embodies the crossover quality of the church planting movement. For 20 years she served as, in her own words, a theologically liberal minister in one of Amsterdam’s churches. There she experienced the dwindling of resources, the aging of the church’s membership and the dropping of the numbers. More or less forced by these developments, she started to go out into the neighborhood to find a new audience for the church’s activities. That wasn’t an easy task, because it was not part of her own theological heritage to speak comfortably with people from outside the church about God, Jesus or faith. “But then,” said Reinders, “it was the neighborhood who converted me. I realized that what I had been preaching so far had no relevance to the people in my neighborhood. If I at least wanted to connect to them, I had to become clear about my own faith. I had to admit to them and to myself that Jesus is quite important to me. That I am a believer!”
“Converted” by this experience, Reinders volunteered to lead one of the denomination’s first church plants. Recently she planted her second, in a poor, neglected neighborhood of Amsterdam where there’s no trace of a church, or even a shop, or a bank. When she first visited the neighborhood, riding on her bike through the quiet, deserted streets, so she told us, she felt Jesus riding with her on the bike, sitting behind her on the luggage carrier. Together they started a new adventure.
The Dutch church does not pretend to have a recipe for how to be church in a post-Christian culture. Trusting in the ability of old sanctuaries to speak to even the grandchildren of lost sons and daughters, living with the ambiguity of porous boundaries and letting go of old, cherished theological identities – these things do not amount to a program or agenda. The church rather seems to learn to trust in wherever God is leading next.
Back in Pittsburgh, our group was asked to lead one of the seminary’s chapel services while drawing and reflecting upon its experiences in the Netherlands. Not wanting to influence my students’ reflections, I decided to skip the preparatory meetings and simply to show up as a worshipper in chapel. I was delighted to see that they had decorated the chapel with tulips – the flowers that grow, as my students explained in their meditations, in the cold Dutch winter months as unsightly bulbs hidden in the dark clay ground, but that sprout out in multiple bright colors when time is ripe. This is how they had experienced the Dutch church, they said. And then we sang Michael Gungor’s “You Make Beautiful Things”:
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us.
And so it is.
Edwin Chr. van Driel is the Directors’ Bicentennial Associate Professor of Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He serves on the advisory board to the seminary’s Church Planting Initiative.