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Europe was the birthplace of the Reformation. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Schlosskirche—the Castle Church—in Wittenberg, Germany. In God’s providence, this became a catalyst for the Reformation that God had been preparing, the Reformation that changed the world.
For a long time, Europe was the center of Christian strength and influence. However, over the past two centuries, Christianity has seen a decline in Europe as the continent has moved into a post-Christian phase. The year 2017 marks the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. So, let’s take an on-the-ground look at the church in Europe today.
the numbers on the ground
When you fly over Europe, you can see a lot of beautiful historic church buildings. Once you are on the ground and you visit some of the churches, you find out that some of those church buildings have been turned into museums; they are no longer places where Christ crucified and risen is proclaimed.
Just consider my own home country of Germany. In 1951, shortly after the Second World War, more than 96 percent of all Germans were members of either the Protestant state church or the Roman Catholic Church. Today, Germany is a country of 82 million people, and the number of members in the Protestant state church has decreased to 22 million people (about 27 percent of the total population) and in the Roman Catholic Church it has decreased to 23.5 million (about 29 percent). So, from 1951 to 2017, the number of members in the two largest churches in Germany has decreased from 96 percent to 56 percent. If these trends continue, then by 2030 this number will have dropped to below 38 percent.
The total worship attendance of all Protestant state churches on an average Sunday is less than eight hundred thousand people—which means that less than 4 percent of the churches’ members actually go to church on any given Sunday. In the Roman Catholic Church, the worship attendance is about 2.5 million people—so about 10.5 percent of their members go to church on any given Sunday.
The number of members in Protestant free churches in Germany today is about three hundred thousand. However, it is estimated that on an average Sunday, close to one million people worship at a Protestant free church in Germany.
Due to the current refugee crisis, the number of Muslims in Germany has substantially increased in the last few years. In 2017, there are about 5 million Muslims in Germany (about 6 percent of the total population). About one-third of all the Muslims in Germany are orthodox in their Islamic faith. The other two-thirds are more liberal and not as committed to the Qur’an.
The general trends that I have described in Germany are similar in other European countries such as Britain, the Netherlands, France, and Austria.
strengths and weaknesses
Apart from the numbers, what are some of the strengths and some of the weaknesses of the church in Europe?
First, let me say that no matter how liberal the church at large in Europe has become over the last two hundred years, Almighty God still has had His faithful servants in different parts of Europe who clearly proclaim Jesus Christ as the only Lord and Savior. One of those faithful servants was Julius von Jan, who served as pastor of the Protestant state church in my home town of Oberlenningen, near Tübingen in southern Germany. In God’s providence, Jan served as a pastor during the reign of the Nazis in Germany. After the Reichskristallnacht in November 1938, Jan preached his famous Bußtagspredigt sermon on Jeremiah 22:29: “O land, land, land, hear the word of the Lord!” In this sermon, Jan called the German people to repent and not to follow the Nazis but instead to follow the living God and obey His Word. Jan preached this sermon while men of the Schutzstaffel (SS) were sitting in the congregation, and a few days later he was sent to a concentration camp. Jan is one example of the strength of the church in Europe: a preacher who not only faithfully preached God’s Word but who was amazingly bold in the midst of tremendous opposition. One of the real strengths of the church in Europe is that many Christians here clearly follow Jesus Christ as their real God—or as Tim Keller likes to say, their “functional Savior.” Most of these Christians are in rather small congregations, and they know that their love and their commitment to Jesus Christ is not esteemed or valued by the culture. And yet they joyfully follow Jesus Christ because of who He is and because of what He has done for them in His sinless life, in His death on the cross, and in His resurrection.
A second strength in the church in Europe—in those churches where Jesus and the gospel is proclaimed—is a deep sense of community and fellowship. It is a great joy for me as pastor of Gospel Church München in Munich, Germany, to see how deeply people love each other and care about each other and how they joyfully spend much time together, both on Sundays and during the week. By God’s grace, we have many non-Christians who visit our worship services, and I frequently hear from them that they are blown away by the joy and the love that the people at Gospel Church München have for God and for one another. It is not unusual for one of these visitors to tell me that they have never seen a more loving community. Praise be to God that this is not only true in Munich but in many other churches that I have visited all over Europe.
A third strength of the church in Europe is its willingness to care for the least of the least. Germany alone took in more than 1.25 million refugees in 2015. Many of them came from war-torn areas in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. A large number of churches in Germany have helped many of these refugees, and by God’s grace, hundreds or possibly even thousands of refugees have come to faith in Jesus Christ. I know of a group of refugees in downtown Munich, most of whom are former Muslims, who meet every Sunday afternoon to study the Bible, and the group just keeps growing and growing, both numerically and spiritually.
When it comes to the weaknesses of the church in Europe, the first thought that comes to mind is that liberal theology has tremendously hurt the church. If you have pastors who are not preaching Christ crucified and risen and who don’t talk about sin, then it is no wonder that people are not converted and that those churches die. In my own experience in Munich, I have heard from several pastors that in the Bible there is no such thing as truth. This is in direct contradiction to Jesus’ words in John 8:31–32: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
An apparent weakness in the church in Europe is that some churches are man-centered rather than God-centered. Instead of being concerned with the glory of God and His eternal kingdom, the focus has shifted to being concerned with how God can give me a better life now.
A third weakness is the lack of knowledge of good systematic theology. It is rare, especially in the free churches, for any catechism or confession to be used in the church. Sadly but not surprisingly, many Christians in Europe don’t know their doctrine; they don’t know what their church really believes. As a consequence, some Protestants in Europe have gotten to the point that they think the Roman Catholic Church teaches and preaches basically the same things as the Protestant churches. They have forgotten—or they have never really been taught—why the Reformation was necessary in the first place.
the way forward
The way forward in Europe is once again to embrace, preach, and live the five solas of the Protestant Reformation: sola Scriptura (Scripture alone is our infallible authority), sola fide (faith alone is the instrument through which we are justified), solus Christus (salvation is found in Christ alone), sola gratia (we are saved only by grace, not by works), and soli Deo gloria (our glory and praise is for God alone).
People in Europe desperately need the Bible. They desperately need truth so that they can personally meet the King of kings and be changed by Him and His Word. They also need to be freed from the burden of works-righteousness by knowing and understanding that their justification is by faith alone. In the midst of the widespread spiritual illiteracy in Europe, it is of utmost importance that people are clearly taught that Jesus Christ is the only mediator through whose work we are redeemed. Praise be to God that salvation is by grace alone and to the glory of God alone.
Yes, the church in Europe needs much prayer, and at the same time, we rejoice that God is at work in Europe. In places where Jesus Christ and the gospel are proclaimed, we see people come to faith and become worshipers of Him. In France, one of the least-churched countries in the world, the number of evangelical churches has multiplied ten times since 1945. And by God’s grace, we have seen God plant and mature Gospel Church München in just five years from a pioneer church plant to a vibrant God-centered church. Soli Deo gloria.