I have heard many times about the secularization of Europe. In our own blog, we have previously commented on the empty great cathedrals of Europe ("Europe's largest churches are often unused these days, reduced to monuments for tourists to admire"). Certainly, Europe has become greatly more secular and atheist than America. But, to at least one scholar, all is not lost for Christianity in Europe.
According to Philip Jenkins, a distinguished professor of history and religious studies at Penn State University and author of God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis, the secularization of Europe is actually a blessing to the now smaller, leaner churches of Europe. In a story in Foreign Policy magazine entitled Europe’s Christian Comeback, Dr. Jenkins expresses the benefits being derived by the churches which, until recently, had been slowly sinking into a type of despair over loss of influence due to secularization:
Europe has long been a malarial swamp for any traditional or orthodox faith. Compared with the rest of the world, religious adherence in Europe is painfully weak. And it is easy to find evidence of the decay. Any traveler to the continent has seen Christianity’s abandoned and secularized churches, many now transformed into little more than museums. But this does not mean that European Christianity is nearing extinction. Rather, among the ruins of faith, European Christianity is adapting to a world in which its convinced adherents represent a small but vigorous minority.
In fact, the rapid decline in the continent’s church attendance over the past 40 years may have done Europe a favor. It has freed churches of trying to operate as national entities that attempt to serve all members of society. Today, no church stands a realistic chance of incorporating everyone. Smaller, more focused bodies, however, can be more passionate, enthusiastic, and rigorously committed to personal holiness. To use a scientific analogy, when a star collapses, it becomes a white dwarf—smaller in size than it once was, but burning much more intensely. Across Europe, white-dwarf faith communities are growing within the remnants of the old mass church.
Perhaps nowhere is this more true than within European Catholicism, where new religious currents have become a potent force. Examples include movements such as the Focolare, the Emmanuel Community, and the Neocatechumenate Way, all of which are committed to a re-evangelization of Europe. These movements use charismatic styles of worship and devotion that would seem more at home in an American Pentecostal church, but at the same time they are thoroughly Catholic. Though most of these movements originated in Spain and Italy, they have subsequently spread throughout Europe and across the Catholic world. Their influence over the younger clergy and lay leaders who will shape the church in the next generation is surprisingly strong.
Similar trends are at work within the Protestant churches of Northern and Western Europe. The most active sections of the Church of England today are the evangelical and charismatic parishes that have, in effect, become megachurches in their own right. These parishes have been incredibly successful at reaching out to a secular society that no longer knows much of anything about the Christian faith. Holy Trinity Brompton, a megaparish in Knightsbridge, London, that is now one of Britain’s largest churches, is home to the amazingly popular “Alpha Course,” a means of recruiting potential converts through systems of informal networking aimed chiefly at young adults and professionals. As with the Catholic movements, the course works because it makes no assumptions about any prior knowledge: Everyone is assumed to be a new recruit in need of basic teaching. Nor does the recruitment technique assume that people live or work in traditional settings of family or employment. The Alpha Course is successfully geared for postmodern believers in a postindustrial economy.
Alongside these older Christian communities are hugely energetic immigrant congregations. On a typical Sunday, half of all churchgoers in London are African or Afro-Caribbean. Of Britain’s 10 largest megachurches, four are pastored by Africans. Paris has 250 ethnic Protestant churches, most of them black African. Similar trends are found in Germany. Booming Christian churches in Africa and Asia now focus much of their evangelical attention on Europe. Nigerian and Congolese ministers have been especially successful, but none more so than the Ukraine-based ministry of Nigerian evangelist Sunday Adelaja. He has opened more than 300 churches in 30 countries in the last 12 years and now claims 30,000 (mainly white) followers.
This trend is consistent with the history of Christianity in the West. At the end of the Medieval Age, for example (and with apologies to our Roman Catholic readers), I feel that the Roman Catholic Church became so cumbersome and imbued with humanism that it lost its focus on the God and the correct teachings of Christianity. It became bogged down in feeding itself and barely continued to serve God. The Reformation which followed was initially an effort to return the Roman Catholic Church to a more historic Christianity. While the reformers were led to break away because of differences that exist to this day, both the Roman Catholic Church and the new reformed churches ultimately benefited from the religious revival that followed.
In the broader picture, when the church has lost some of its faithfulness either due to philosophy or apathy, God seems to winnow out the church by some mechanism. The church then rebounds in a condition that constitutes a marked improvement over the prior situation. That appears to be what is happening here.
It should be noted (with a nod of admiration for our Roman Catholic readers) that Pope Benedict XVI expressed a willingness, perhaps even a desire, for a leaner Christian presence in Europe. In a blog entry entitled Pope Benedict XVI -- His Stand and the Remnant Church, we quoted an article about Pope Benedict in Time Magazine and noted:
"Benedict XVI's frequently stated positions appear to accept the inevitability of the decline of Church membership in the industrialized West, rather than to reach out to accommodate the concerns of those who might be drifting away from the Church." I read Pope Benedict's writings as suggesting that he was willing to allow that to happen. Basically, he said something to the effect of "we must stand for correct doctrine, and if that causes the church to shrink to a remnant and become almost invisible to the world, then that is the will of God."
But the shrinking was not seen as being necessarily a bad thing to Pope Benedict XVI. The Time Magazine article noted:
By that analysis, the Church would continue to shrink in the West under Benedict XVI, unless he turns out to be extremely gifted pastorally. But that would not necessarily bother him that much. He has previously indicated that he would be comfortable with an extremely small Church, preferring a small church of true believers to a larger one whose numbers are swelled by people he would not see as good Catholics. Benedict XVI has previously argued that it is not unhealthy for church to be a counter culture rather than a dominant player in secular Western society. He's willing to see it play the role of an oppositional minority to a cultural drift he sees at odds with Church teachings.
In my view, Pope Benedict XVI was (and is) right on target. It is better that the church be pruned to a remnant of the truly faithful so that it can grow back healthier, more Biblically and theologically sound, and more godly than before. If Dr. Jenkins is right, that regrowth is beginning.
(HT: CT Direct's LiveBlog)