By Patrick Nachtigall
It is well known that the evangelical church struggles in Europe. On a continent where the evangelical population can be as low as 0.25% (Greece) and where 4% overall church attendance is considered good (Germany); many evangelical churches find themselves struggling to maintain churches with more than 20 committed people. The northern protestant countries such as England, Scotland, Sweden, Germany, and Holland are likely to see the most success, and some countries outside of Western Europe like Ukraine and Romania show a decent amount of growth. But for the most part, Christianity is in decline and evangelical churches barely survive.
The few that seem to be thriving are almost always made up immigrants, persecuted or marginalized people like the Roma, or people who have parents that were active Christians---even if it was in the State church. Quite often these churches have quite a few parishioners who are related to each other which adds to the numbers of the congregation. Converting an actual Czech person, Spaniard, or Greek is very difficult.
The usual reasons given for that is the fact that Europe is post-religious/post-Christian, having been the birthplace of the secular environment and the Enlightenment. It’s also true that the christian church under the regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco and many other dictatorships often served as an enabler of evil. There’s also the fact that religious wars decimated the European population for the past 2,000 years and church wielded too much power over nations. But I would like to highlight some “invisible factors” that are often not seen which create huge obstacles for the evangelical church and frustration for its leaders. It is my hope that understanding these invisible factors will help European evangelical churches to make adjustments or at least help them set their expectations correctly. The success of American Evangelical churches (not to mention those in the non-Western world) hangs over the heads of many European Christian leaders like a dark cloud of condemnation. Does that have to be the case?
Factor 1: Volunteerism
The evangelical church that arose out of England, Scotland and particularly America had a strong activist strain. Especially in the United States, the DNA of evangelical christianity was rooted in taking action, evangelism (marketing), and competing against other faith groups. In order to do that, a lot of volunteers were required. There were strong expectations that once you were part of the church, you worked for the church unpaid. That came easily to Americans, who as Alexander de Tocqueville noted in the 19th century, were activists by nature.
Europeans, on the other hand, come from high-churches (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodoxy, Lutheranism), where duties fell to the priests and nuns. Attending mass was the only obligation, the professionals did the rest. The fact that most American evangelical churches have quite a large number of people who are willing to put in 10 to 20 hours a week in the church to run the nursery, cut the grass, or serve in long board meetings is really quite unusual and something often taken for granted. The evangelical church is highly dependent on people volunteering their free time with no expectation of financial reward.
Factor 2: The part-time pastor
In the United States, the vocational pastor is now being lifted up by some as a better option to the paid full-time pastor. The idea is that this gives the people more ownership and church involvement will increase. But as we saw in Factor 1, people are more likely to step up if they come from a culture that values volunteerism. The European pastor not only has little lay help, but they often have to work at a primary job in addition to running the church. This easily leads to high-rates of burn out. It also can result in churches that expect that pastor to do everything. It’s a cycle that becomes hard to break. Even if pastors decide to delegate and encourage more lay involvement, they are still dealing with an overall culture outside of the church (if not within), that doesn’t understand the concept of volunteering.
Factor 3: The commute
A further challenge for the European church is that the number of evangelicals and evangelical churches is so small, that often times the people within the church do not live in the neighborhood of the church. In fact, they may be commuting on the metro for 1 hour in Rome or Paris just to get to their congregation. This also makes lay-leadership difficult. The churches are often not that well-integrated into the neighborhood so they can’t really affect much change. They may not even reflect the culture of the neighborhood in which they are located. The commute also means that congregants are not available for many activities or lay leadership positions throughout the week. In the United States, many churches draw from their towns, suburbs, or at least have a high population of people who own cars and can easily drive to the church throughout the week.
Factor 4: The minority complex
Because there are so few evangelical churches, the people within the church often feel marginalized by society. They are usually looked down upon (as religious kooks or part of a cult), and they may even face persecution in countries like Russia. There may also be subtle “soft” prejudices they have to deal with, such as landlords and city officials that do not want to give building permits, lease a room, or grant a visa to missionaries. This may not result in physical harm or death, but it can be very demoralizing and make running a church extremely challenging.
All of this can also lead to a separatist attitude. Instead of engaging post-Christendom, the church is tempted to withdraw further. It is very difficult to convert european non-Christians if the church is going to view only those that swallow the Gospel whole as people worthy of relationship. Too often, evangelicals are quick to condemn all of European society as if it has nothing to offer. This includes expressing a lot of hostility toward Catholics, Orthodox, or other state churches which these countries and cultures have been deeply shaped by. It is like saying “All Samaritans are completely useless, you must leave Samaria on your own and come to us.” There’s no sense that there may be important pieces of the dominant secular and religious culture that need to be engaged with and respected.
Factor 5: Legalism
With such an overwhelming secular environment and feeling on the margins of society, evangelical churches in Europe are often very fearful of dying. That fear manifests itself as legalism—an extreme intolerance for anyone who doesn’t practice Christianity exactly the way the stalwarts of the church do.
It’s no coincidence that many European evangelical churches lose their young people. The adults in the church become extremely protective of their church traditions and become very inflexible in theology. Questioning the faith or expressing oneself differently becomes a problem. In fact, for newcomers, taking too long too assimilate can be viewed as unacceptable. The 19-year old recent convert that still has piercings, or dresses too provocatively, or still smokes is not integrated into the life of the church, given responsibilities, or even walked alongside.
The younger generations of the families in the church wrestle with a European, pluralistic world that the church does not even engage. The answers that work inside the small evangelical church, don’t work for them at the university, playground or pub. Too often, churches value their traditions more than they do becoming accessible to the very different culture outside of their doors. When that culture of legalism enters into the church, they are often not willing to go on a journey with the converted individual, but rather expect them to very rapidly conform to the acceptable expression of Christiaity.
Factor 6: Power-blocks/Small family business model
Since so few people convert and the churches are small, it is often the case that evangelical churches in Europe are run by, or dominated by one particular family. That family becomes the power-block that becomes impossible to displace. One family may control all the decisions. Healthy decisions may not be made because it would be turning one’s back on family. The church politics can become stifling. The reality is that the evangelical model can be very much like running small business.
Since a small power-block has invested the most in the church, they have a hard time making room for new leadership. They feel that they have paid their dues. Healthy confrontation is avoided, and the church rises and falls on the commitment of that one family. This happens outside of Europe as well, but it is particularly likely to happen in European churches because so few convert, and family influence is one of the main ways that people discover and commit to a religion.
Factor 7: The Lack of a talent-pool
Evangelical churches are very dependent on having activities, programming, and outreach. The end-result is that organization becomes a key factor and people with great skill-sets in that area are needed to keep it running. In Europe, the church may have very few people so the diversity of skill-sets is very limited. Furthermore, so few people want to be pastors, that it is quite often the case that the lead pastor is not particularly talented in a lot of the key areas required for evangelism and growth. They may not, for instance, be very good organizers, or public speakers, or teachers; but these are the things they have to do to keep the church open. Churches in the United States, the Philippines, and Nigeria may have a much easier time finding people who have church management skill-sets. This is not to say that God cannot equip people—however many pastors struggle under the burden of working in areas that may not be their areas of strength.
Factor 8: High expense/low income
Most Evangelical churches expect to have a band, at least a number of instruments, good audio visuals, a building space (preferably their own purchased space) and a variety of programs and activities. All of this costs money. It becomes a pretty high overhead expense when the church may have only 20 people. In some European countries, not having a church building of your own means the local people will never view you as a church and will always label you a strange cult. Of course, Christians can remain on the fringe and marginalized as Jesus said we often would be; but most European churches don’t want to remain that way. They want legitimacy so they can engage the community.
It can also be hard to create tithers from the congregation. Many live in countries where taxes may have to go to the state church, and so giving to their local evangelical church can seem like a second tax. With long histories in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church, many Europeans are not used to the start-up business form of the evangelical Church. These powerful state churches were not short of money, but the evangelical church seems to need it constantly. It can be challenging for pastors to create this discipline of tithing, which means finances can often be a problem.
Factor 9: The Overly-expressive style
The fastest growing and largest churches in Europe are Pentecostal and often made up of ethnic groups that are comfortable with that style of self-expression. Evangelicalism requires a lot of intimacy and high levels of trust. In low-trust societies like Bulgaria, or societies where people are expected to keep their personal thoughts and issues to themselves (such as Sweden and Finland), the evangelical form of religion is completely unnatural. The charismatic Christian may say that the joy of Christ will fill them up and they will become extremely extroverted. But there’s room for the silent, the shy, the modest in the Kingdom of God and that is often not recognized.
A sincere Finn may be very curious about Christianity and wanting a relationship with God, but the extreme extroversion required to show that one’s “on fire Christianity” may lead to discouragement. Once again, a particular style---one that fits very well with African, Latin American, and North American cultures, does not necessarily fit well in Europe.
The growth, when it unexpectedly happens in a place like Sweden, is often made up from immigrant communities, people who were already Christian or raised in Christian households, or who are unusual in their country for being so comfortable with a charismatic way of self-expression.
Factor 10: Imitating American evangelical structures/high maintenance
Quite a few European churches have looked to Bill Hybels and Rick Warren for guidance on how to do church. But Hybels and Warren had churches in places with a high population of Christians, in a volunteer society, in a place of abundant wealth, and a place where Christian volunteers with excellent organizational skills are not hard to find (Chicago, Los Angeles). They have the freedom to dream up anything: time-consuming programs, large activities, and money to promote those activities. This is not the case in Europe, yet many evangelical churches in Europe feel the need to have a band, have a light show, and do all the extra things that American churches do so well. It creates a need for lots of volunteers, lots of money, lots of organizational skill and lots of time---all things that can be severely limited in the European setting.
Factor 11: Outside players and division
It often seems to be the case that small churches in Europe receive new people from other small Evangelical churches who come into the church and assume leadership. Time and time again, I’ve seen too many churches that have an outside Christian come in and critique the church and create a division in the church. They are often opinionated, left their last church under a cloud, and after a “honeymoon period,” begin to critique their new small church.
With so few churches to choose from, and almost all of the churches struggling, it becomes very easy for new folks to come in and target the church pastor and leadership. They identify the pastor as too weak, or the church music as too dull, or the theology unbiblical. The most common criticism is a “dead spirit” or a lack of charismatic worship. Even though evangelical European communities are small, there is a lot of church-shopping, hopping and disgruntlement. Outside players can become a big influence very quickly because there are so few people needed to influence change in the church.
Factor 12: Ethnic Churches
As previously mentioned, it is often the case that evangelical churches in Europe are primarily ethnic or made up of immigrants: Jamaican churches in London, Nigerian churches in Ukraine, Arab churches in Paris, or Chinese and Korean churches in Madrid. They were often started by the first immigrants to that community, or are a part of the new wave of evangelical missions from the Non-Western world to the West. They bring dynamism and sometimes significant resources to the evangelical movement in Europe.
These churches, however, are often unaware of how much their church style is tailor-made to fit their particular culture. Nigerian-style of worship doesn’t really fit the average Norwegian. The tolerance for authoritarian leadership in a Lebanese church may not go over well with the average Dutch person who expects more consensual decision-making. The insistence on only speaking Korean and reaching Koreans, may alienate the secular French person.
Often, ethnic churches are seeking to praise God and do discipleship, but they also are trying to preserve their cultural heritage. Quite often they are unaware that they are structured in such a culturally-specific way. It is often the case, as well, that they have no interest in reaching out to those of different nationalities.
Factor 13: The Cultural Christianity Factor
Because evangelicals are often demonized by Catholic, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Orthodox believers, they often retaliate by demonizing in return. There are obviously key theological differences that are important and legitimate, but too often the evangelical forgets that the European’s whole society and family structure can be tied to their state religion. Not being a part of Catholic or Orthodox rituals can have a dramatically isolating effect. As with Muslims, the evangelical views these other Christian expressions as false teachings with nothing useful.
The evangelical church often wants to separate from these other faith traditions and theology, but ends up removing them and demonizing them to the point that it is much more difficult for the church to be the salt of the Earth within the larger culture. This is not always necessary.
Insurmountable Obstacles? Moving Toward Hope
Most likely, doing church in Europe will always be difficult. The continent has a lot of negative religious cultural baggage and secularism runs deep in Europe. However, many evangelical churches are making things more difficult for themselves or living under an unnecessary cloud of self-condemnation.
In order to be free to thrive, evangelical churches need to make some adjustments. Churches need to be rooted more in community than trying to create an institution on a particular city block. The church truly has to be the people. There’s no need to offer every program, meet in the exact same location, or have all the extra equipment we see in most churches around the world. Simply having a community that practices the faith together is enough. Most people convert through friendship, family or crisis. The European church needs to simply have a strong community that reflects a hopeful alternative to dead religion or secularism.
Pastors need to equate success more with journeying with people through life, than putting on a Sunday event and seeing numerical growth. The secular European has a long way to go when they discover Christianity and it takes patience. They need a community that will extend grace and love unconditionally. They don’t need to be quickly viewed as someone to help manage a high-overhead organization or propagate the faith. It means allowing the younger generations to look different and express their faith differently. It means allowing the men’s barbeque or woman’s dinner and Bible study group to be the main point of community and the church.
It also means following the organic growth. If the men’s barbeque or woman’s dinner and Bible study group is the place where the most intimate community is experienced, let that be the main focus of church. There’s no need to expect a stereotypical Sunday service to be what defines the strength of the church. It’s the barbeque that might truly influence the neighborhood and win new people. Go to the places where there is traction, taking the Bible, prayer, and community as you go. It may not be the case that those strongest moments of community are on Sunday or at the weekly Bible study and that is okay. In the European context, it is probably better.
Ethnic churches have to be honest about whether they really want to preach the Gospel to all the nations or just one. And pastors need to be honest about their skill-sets and do the things they can do well—instead of trying to replicate everything done in the average American church.
Instead of demonizing all of Catholicism or Orthodoxy, evangelical churches need to look for overlap. It’s often the case that people in these other branches of Christianity are attracted to the intimacy and immediacy of evangelical faith, as well as the emphasis on community. The old faith can be the one where they remain a cultural part of their family, while the evangelical faith can be their heart faith. This will prove to be too controversial for many, but it is my opinion that without making that distinction between “cultural faith” and “heart faith;” a lot of people are being denied the opportunity to experiment and fall in love with Jesus. There are plenty of Russians, Finns, Italians, and Greeks who want to have a genuine Christian faith experience. They’ve never known there was an option outside of their national/cultural faith. It is easy for evangelicals to view religion as something individualistic that we choose; but in many European cultures, national and family identity are inseparable from daily life. There should be grace extended so that they may discover a form of Christianity they didn’t think possible.
It is a myth that there was once a time when Europe was super-Christian. Europeans often had a hard time leaving their pagan religions behind, there was often plenty of skepticism toward the church, and religious fervor and devotion was found in few people. The reality is that few want to follow the revolutionary life of Jesus. And in many places like Korea, Nigeria, and the United States, there are large churches filled with people that are simply going through the rituals—even in evangelical churches. Doing church is always difficult in this fallen world. But European churches have the opportunity to be free, and think outside of the box, by placing community ahead of institutional preservation. It is certainly possible that the adaptable European church could be a model for the whole Christian world.
About the Author: Patrick Nachtigall is the Regional Coordinator for Europe and the Middle East for Global Strategy and leads the Three Worlds Team. He is the author of 5 books on Christianity and globalization including "In God We Trust?: A Challenge to American Evangelicals" and "Facing Islam Without Fear: A Christian's Guide to Engaging the Muslim World" (also translated into German). He has an M.A. from Yale University and has been to nearly 80 countries examining the church in a variety of settings. Originally from Costa Rica, he has worked in Asia, North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America. He lives in the Black Forest, Germany with his wife Jamie and son Marco. He is available for consultations and public speaking.