According to a recent Wall Street Journal report (1/2/15), hundreds of church buildings are for sale across Western Europe. The now-empty buildings, many of them masterpieces of religious structural design, have closed due to "plunging membership." Western Europe was once ground zero for the Protestant Reformation. Now this cultural first cousin of the U.S. is rapidly becoming "de-Christianized;" some say "re-paganized."
"The Church of England closes about 20 churches a year. Roughly 200 Danish churches have been deemed nonviable or underused. The Roman Catholic Church in Germany has shut about 515 churches in the past decade."
"But it is in the Netherlands where the trend appears to be most advanced. The country's Roman Catholic leaders estimate that two-thirds of their 1,600 churches will be out of commission in a decade, and 700 of Holland's Protestant churches are expected to close within four years."
Why are the buildings empty? Secularization has slashed membership. Once, these beautiful buildings were the thriving architectural representations of vibrant Christian faith. More than 43% of the population of the Netherlands identifies themselves as unaffiliated with any religion. In the Netherlands the number is above 43%; in France over 28%; in Germany 24%, and in the U.K. over 21%. Now their vacant hulks are hollow testimony to what happens when Christianity goes up for sale. This article is written to explain some of the reasons for Europe's de-Christianization.
Writing in the landmark, 11-volume The Story of Civilization (1935-1975) series, Will and Ariel Durant said that "Christianity was born in caves but died in cathedrals." According to this pithy truism, persecution and its catacombs were an intense incubator for Christian faith. In contrast, the cathedrals that housed the later, culturally relaxed form of faith were Christianity's rest home. Faith grows in troubled hearts; faith dies in the presence of too many creature comforts; if you build it, they won't come for long.
Begun as a change in real estate, the selling of the European Christian soul concluded as a change in beliefs. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche declared that "God is Dead" in 1882. "The phrase "God is dead" did not refer to an actual death in a literal sense. Rather, it conveys his view that the Christian God was no longer a credible source of absolute moral principles." "God is dead" meant that Christian doctrine was dead.
Morally cast adrift from the Christian God and his rules of faith and practice, Europe reverted to earlier roots. Pioneering psychologist Sigmund Freud believed that pagan Europe never really converted to Christianity. Certainly the current moral direction of Western Civilization (homosexuality and same-sex marriage, abortion and euthanasia, individualism and tribalism eclipsing nationalism. and so on) trends more toward Woden and Thor than Jehovah and His Son.
According to The Re-paganization of the West, a November 5, 2004 article by Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, "This is the inevitable result of the increasingly therapeutic worldview that marks the postmodern age. In a very real sense, humanistic psychology has become for our culture the direct route to repaganization...a general willingness to reconceptualize religion in terms of self-esteem." If you don't build it exactly like we like, in other words, we won't come.
What of the particulars of Christian doctrine when the foundation of Christianity has re-poured in honor of the god of self? What of the particulars of Christian worship, for example, the activity that formerly filled the formerly filled houses of worship, when "every man (does) what is right in his own eyes" (Jud. 21:25)? The sign on the lawn matches the sign in European heart: "Sold."
Toward an American Sell-Off
Although the United States revolted against British political domination and has established a social order separate from its European past, in many ways we continue to be European. Religious trends reflect this heritage. According to every graph of religiosity, as in Western Europe, American Christianity is in a death spiral. Referring to the futures market in church real estate, the Wall Street Journal article warns, "Unless these trends change..."within another 30 years the situation in the U.S. will be at least as bad as what is currently evident in Europe."
While nothing we do will have any effect on the potential sale of Protestant or Catholic buildings, we can still keep our doors open, if. Not following Europe's Christian secularization is the key. We need more catacombs and the distance from comfort and modern culture they represent. We need more confidence in the Living God and the values and principles He requires.