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The Church in Europe: Imminent Demise?

Jenkins.jpg It is common to make two claims today:

1. That the Church in Europe is in a steady decline and heading toward distinction extinction.
The dearth of births to Christians — Italy’s birth rate is at 1.28 while 2.1 is needed to sustain a population —  portends a future collapse of the Church.

2. That Islam is rising in Europe and will eventually do to Europe what it has done to the Middle East. Europe will, they say, become Eurabia.
Arabs, in the last fifty years, have grown from 80 million to 320! (10-14% of Russia is Muslim.)


But the amazingly wide-ranging scholar Philip Jenkins, never afraid to enter into the fray of scholarly assurances or popular claims, steps into this debate with his newest book, God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis (The Future of Christianity)
, and cautions both scholars and the populace. He summons folks to the table for some nuance and less apocalyptic rhetoric.


Well, yes, the Church is declining and you can see churches that are now museums and you can see boarded up churches, but there is plenty of Christian faith and a rise in small groups of Christians. And, yes, many Muslims have moved to Europe, and, yes, there is a genuine threat, but Jenkins seems to be saying it is not as serious as the doomsayers claim.

In fact, plenty of African Pentecostals are moving to Europe and many of the Muslims have become much more European. Millions of Europeans have been through the ALPHA course and there are a number of megachurches in Britain. Christianity will remain the majority for decades ahead.

Both Christianity and Islam are under threat because of the wide-ranging power of cultural secularism.


Comments read comments(16)
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Matthew Glock

posted June 10, 2009 at 2:07 am

Hello Scot!
Thanks for this post. I’ve been serving in Europe for nearly 20 years and agree that the the phrase “imminent demise of the church” doesnt’ fit my experience.
I’ve recently come across some of the doomsday stuff about the rise of Islam in Europe. A lot of bad statistical analysis. As Jenkins says, Muslims in Europe are dealing with secularization as much as we are. An Imam here in Grenoble once asked a priest I know for ideas on how to deal with it!
We are encouraged by what God is doing here in our part of the world and believe if we love God and love our neighbors as we should, good things will happen. I think I’ve read that somewhere!
As always thanks for your commitment to ministering to folks like me through your books and blogs. Maybe when you are on your travels on this side of the Atlantic you could make a detour to our part of the world.
God bless,

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Joe B

posted June 10, 2009 at 6:45 am

Matt, thanks for your informed comment! I was tempted to make such a comment myself, except that I’ve only stepped foot in Europe once!
People love alarmist reporting, but this “sky-is-falling” stuff misses the whole point. Was the fall of Shanghai in 1949 the “demise of Christianity” in China?
God creates out of thin air. If we are counting soldiers, we are not living in faith.

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James Petticrew

posted June 10, 2009 at 6:52 am

I do worry some times when I hear American Christians pronounce the death of Christianity and the demise of the Church in Europe. There is no doubt that the Church faces challenges, there is no doubt that the Christendom era during which the Church had a privileged and powerful place in culture is coming to an end.
HOWEVER …. As has been said Islam faces more challenges in dealing with a changing culture in Europe than Christianity because it has no incarnational impulse to contextualization. I suspect, but with no hard evidence, that more Muslims slip into nominalism than Europeans convert to Islam. Small urban areas in England have powerful Muslim communities but that is a long way from them taking over the continent!
When it comes to the state of the Church in Europe as compared to the States, I think the situation is more complex than imagined. How do we gauge the health of the Church? If its attendance in buildings, there is no doubt the Church in the States has more posteriors on pews per head of population than most Western European countries.Is church attendance alone a sign of spiritual vitality, not if medieval Europe is an example!
I wonder in relation to this why the areas in the States where church going is higher still have higher levels of murder and violent crime than areas in Europe where Church attendance is low? Oslo is safer than an Atlanta! Fewer people per head of population are murdered in Denmark than in Texas. Could it be that American Christianity is making little impact on its culture? Could it be that despite being numerically stronger the Church in America perhaps is not as spiritually healthy as its European counterpart? Hows that for being proactive!

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James Petticrew

posted June 10, 2009 at 6:55 am

sorry provocative!

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posted June 10, 2009 at 9:25 am

I’ve always found the “demise of Christianity in Europe” narrative questionable because it often is purveyed by American fundamentalists arguing that the Church in Europe “sold out” theologically by, well, not being fundamentalist. That said, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Belgium, and the general sense I felt towards Christianity there seemed much more cynical than I’ve experienced at home in the U.S., even in the Northeast. But I really didn’t go looking beyond my immediate circle in Belgium, and I get the sense that Belgians generally are a prickly and cynical lot about pretty much everything(apologies to any Belgians out there!).
I’ve also spent a fair amount of time in Ireland, and my sense there was very different, perhaps because I actually visited a couple of churches in and around Galway. I felt that both the Catholic and evangelical / charismatic presence around Galway had some vibrancy.

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posted June 10, 2009 at 9:45 am

Over a hundred years ago Charles Hodge dismissed the threat of Darwin and academic skepticism, saying “mere irreligion” wasn’t the threat – the rise of Catholicism thru immigration was the real threat. In his mind, nothing was as powerful as a competing religion. He was wrong.
A young woman from our church is in Kosovo for a year, predominantly Muslim, the word is that less than 5% of the Muslims go to the mosque.
Right now, nothing looks more like the Revelation 13 Bablylon than western secular materialism/capitalism, unhooked from it’s “Christian memory”. It’s unbelievably powerful, able to coopt any culture, apparently no matter how old or traditional or strong. The little book “Why the Rest Hates the West” is a pretty good read on this.
A friend in Quebec just hosted a first-time-ever meeting between Catholic theologians and evangelical leaders. Discussion topic was “The Survival of Christianity in Quebec”. The Catholics are just as worried as the evangelicals in that province. Quebec went from an 80% faithful Catholic rate in 1960 to less than 10% in 1970. The sociologists there call it “the quiet revolution”.

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John W Frye

posted June 10, 2009 at 10:37 am

My observation from many trips to Ukraine is that there is a blossoming young church intent not only in reaching Ukraine, but the surrounding countries with the gospel. Ukrainian Christians have access into some of the Muslim countries (the “-stans”) that Western missionaries do not have.

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Scott Eaton

posted June 10, 2009 at 10:49 am

“Both Christianity and Islam are under threat because of the wide-ranging power of cultural secularism.”
I do not know if that is Jenkins’ observation or yours, Scot, but I think it is a good one.

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posted June 10, 2009 at 11:35 am

Heading toward extinction rather than distinction I assume? Otherwise I am not quite sure what you mean.
I agree – the most profound threat is cultural secularism and cynicism. I think that it is the biggest threat in the US as well.

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Steve Forsberg

posted June 10, 2009 at 11:36 am

Gregory A. Boyd, in the Myth of a Christian Religion: Losing Your Religion for the Beauty of a Revolution, has many insightful concerns about the American church. Many of these concerns would apply to the European church as well. If the church does not become the church Jesus intended, it should fail. For a false church to fail would be a good thing. It would open a huge space that could be filled by a spiritual hunger and passion for the authentic Jesus.
We need to be the church Jesus intended us to be. Then the “city upon the hill” would shine in true righteousness.

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Mark Baker-Wright

posted June 10, 2009 at 11:49 am

It’s nitpicky, I know, but I’m pretty sure you mean “extinction” instead of “distinction” in the first paragraph.

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Dana Ames

posted June 10, 2009 at 12:02 pm

John Frye @7,
I’m wondering what your impressions have been of Orthodoxy in Ukraine.

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Allan R. Bevere

posted June 10, 2009 at 4:32 pm

I had a seminary student a few years ago who was a missionary in Europe. She was taking classes while she and her family were on furlough in the U.S. She basically affirmed what Jenkins is suggesting.

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posted June 10, 2009 at 6:25 pm

You can do amazing things with statistics and numbers, birth rates and population growth being two instances. Perhaps, the worldwide Arab population has grown 400% from 80 to 320 million over the past 50 years, but this is not unusual for Africa or Asia (outside of China because of its new policy) or South America or any other part of the world, except for Europe and the United States and Canada, and who is to say that the economic and cultural forces that led to a decline in birthrate in the post-industrial countries will not happen in the other continents? It is not inevitable that birth rate and population growth will continue as is. I think that these kinds of statistics are fear-mongering.
I am reminded of the supposed fact that if you could fold a paper 42 times, the thickness would reach from the Earth to the Moon:

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posted June 11, 2009 at 5:25 am

Oh my the muslims are everywhere! Did you know that there was a man in Germany around 1920 that also claimed that the Jews were everywhere and taking over Germany, and that immediate action was needed.
Anyway I think Europe church wise is more than alive, even if we do not worship God in all of the big cathedrals and churches, but even these still remind all of us in Europe of our Christian roots.
When people make these 2 claims, they need to overcome their racist fears they proclaim, and secondly visit Europe and see for themselves.

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posted July 9, 2009 at 11:11 am

I just returned yesterday from a 16 day excursion through Italy, Switzerland, Germany and France. If there is a vital church presence in those places (aside from tourists taking pictures of the stained glass & murals)), I sure didn’t see it. A friend of mine and his wife are full time Campus Crusade staff in Rome and his statement to me was that among the college-30 year old grouping, he has seen only ONE true conversion through their efforts (2 1/2 years). His analysis was that this generation claims either to be ‘athiest’ or have little interest in God and faith, preferring rather to pursue relationships and social lives…of course, after seeing the opulence of the churches there, I can’t say I don’t understand their desire to detach themselves from the institutional church. This, of course, brings into question the whole visible vs. invisible church issue. I would be curious to see what the perspectives are of some pastors who actually live and work there among the people.

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