With global attention focused on the aftermath of an attack inspired by radical Islam, the contrast of another religion’s decay in Europe is striking. That religion, of course, is Christianity. And the signs of its decline are scattered across a continent once solidly populated by the faithful. Derelict cathedrals, chapels, and monasteries have become quite a problem for European denominations and local officials, who puzzle over how best to fill the empty and expensive houses of a bygone era’s piety.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Naftali Bendavid describes empty churches that entrepreneurs and city officials have repurposed as skateboard parks, gymnastic training arenas, museums, supermarkets, gyms, and even bars. But it’s a trend that can’t continue indefinitely.
“There is a limit to the number of libraries or concert halls a town can financially support,” he quips.
These rapidly emptying church buildings, though, are only a symbol of Europe’s true spiritual decline. Its people, once overwhelmingly Christian and regularly in the pews on Sunday morning, have given up visibly observing their religion. Even those who still identify as Christian show few of the signs of vital belief, and many experts expect even these holdouts to accept secularism with time.
“The closing of Europe’s churches,” Writes Bendavid, “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.”
Over the last decades for which data is available, both self-identified Christians and those who regularly attend church services plummeted throughout most of the continent. The Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary predicts that five years from now, the number of Christians in Western Europe will have fallen by almost 23 percent since 1970. And actual attendance is abysmal, with less than 2 percent of the population darkening the door of a church on a regular basis in Britain, France, or Germany.
According to the European Values Study as reported by The Christian Post, half of the population in many areas of Europe never attend religious services. And Germany, a country with one-quarter the population of the United States, is home to 10 times as many atheists.
The Church of England is now closing around 20 churches a year, and about 200 churches in Denmark have been deemed non-viable by their parishes over the past 10 years. An estimated 515 Roman Catholic churches in Germany have closed their doors over the same period, and most shockingly, Catholic clergy estimate that two-thirds of their 1,600 churches in the Netherlands will be closed by 2020.
Meanwhile, Pew Research estimates that the number of Muslims in Europe has steadily grown by 2.1 percent in the last 20 years, and will reach a projected 8 percent of the continent’s total population, or 58 million people, by 2030. The more practical the figures considered, the more telling they become. On any given Friday in the U.K., for instance, there are four times as many Muslims at mosque as there are Anglicans in church on Sunday (Friday is the primary Islamic day of worship).
The outlook for Christianity in the United States, of course, is far less bleak. Although church attendance has slumped somewhat in recent years due to the collapse of mainline Protestant denominations, evangelical congregations plant hundreds of new churches annually, totaling an estimated 5,000 since the year 2000. And compared with its next-door neighbor Canada, where those identifying as Christians plunged by over 35 percent between 1970 and 2010, the United States has remained surprisingly religious.
Still, the similarities between Europe and the U.S. mean that in a world where Christianity is blossoming at historic rates, American Christians are falling woefully behind, and may be in danger of losing ground. And no evangelical in the U.S. can have missed the cultural and political shift away from biblical values in recent years, particularly when it comes to marriage, sexuality, and religious liberty.
The contrast between the collapse of faith in Europe and its uncertain future in America brings to mind the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 11:11-24, part of a letter written to a young, urban community of believers.
In this passage, he paints the picture of an olive tree symbolic of the church. The natural branches of that olive tree, he says, were cut off in order that wild branches might be grafted in and partake of its nourishment. The natural branches, he explains, represent his own Jewish people, while the wild branches represent the Gentiles — those to whom his epistle was written. He offers this parable as a warning to the in-grafted Gentiles not to become complacent or arrogant in their status, lest they find themselves likewise pruned from the tree (vs. 20-21).
As the center of Christianity’s gravity for over 1,000 years, Europe may have seemed to many like a new Israel. Generations referred to it as “Christendom,” and to be European was once virtually synonymous with being Christian. No more. Now much of Europe has been, in Paul’s words, “broken off because of unbelief” (v. 20).
American pastors should pray and work to reverse Europe’s tide of spiritual apathy, cooperating especially with churches across the Atlantic to replant the Gospel in a post-Christian society. But just as importantly, we must reject European-style secularism at home, maintaining the savor that makes the church the church (Luke 14:34) and the faith by which branches remain in the tree (Rom. 11:20). Otherwise, we too may find ourselves “cut away” and our churches turned into skateboard parks.
- Europe’s Empty Churches Go on Sale | Naftali Bendavid | The Wall Street Journal| January 2, 2015
- Empty Churches: The Decline of Cultural Christianity in the West | Kyle Beshears | The Christian Post | July 19, 2013
- Study: 2.6 Billion of World Population Expected to Be Christian by 2020 | Jessica Martinez | The Christian Post | July 19, 2013
- Christian Missions Across the Globe | Shawn Anderson Blog | July 31, 2013