Monday, November 26, 2007

Life in Europe?

This is a (lightly edited) column from the Wall Street Journal this weekend.
The Well Spring

Old ladies sitting in otherwise empty churches. That's the picture most of my American friends have of spirituality in Europe. How is it, then, that a guy like me, Bible Belt-born and -bred, lifetime churchgoer, has found spiritual renewal in this pit of secularism? And am I the only one?

The hard data show that Christianity remains in long-term decline here. A 2004 Gallup poll found that 15% of Europeans attend a weekly worship service of any faith, compared with 44% of Americans. And the spiritual gap between the U.S. and Europe is actually "worse than people think," says Philip Jenkins, author of "God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious Crisis."

But the light is not yet out. Those remaining believers and the faith communities they form are what Prof. Jenkins calls "white dwarves" -- because "they're smaller than the sun, but they shine brighter." I'm no astrophysicist, but it seems to me that such intense bodies are more likely to expand than to contract.

This is certainly true of the church in which I'm involved here, which has grown to 120 members -- larger than the average church in Belgium -- in just a couple of years.

My wife and I began to look for a church soon after moving to Brussels three years ago. It was almost a reflex and initially may have amounted to little more than the search for the familiar. After trying an Anglican church that resembled the Catholic one she grew up in and a Scottish congregation that seemed like the Methodist one I was raised in, we came upon a new church called The Well that had been planted by missionaries from the U.S. It's a mix of the familiar and the foreign. The leaders speak with American accents, but rather than deliver a sermon, they encourage attendees to hash out the week's topic in small discussion groups.

The Well doesn't gather as one large group in a church building but rather as a few smaller groups in caf├ęs and restaurants. That's in part because we don't actually own a building. But there's a purpose behind this, too: It's far less intimidating for newcomers to visit a public space with a dozen or so other people than a normal "church" with pews and a steeple and a hundred strange faces. In the course of our gatherings, we also meet people who were just going out for coffee and probably wouldn't have wandered into a sanctuary along the way.

This emphasis on the nontraditional is intentional. For many of the Europeans I've met here, it's not God who is dead to them as much as it is The Church -- the official, often state-supported church, be it Catholic, Anglican or Lutheran. Now new life is being infused into these churches by missionaries from America and even

Some of the elements in The Well -- and its sister churches in Madrid, Amsterdam and other European cities -- that are deemed unusual here would seem familiar to American Christians: worship songs that sound like rock 'n' roll rather than 18th-century hymns; discussions focusing on a personal relationship with God rather than a list of do's and don'ts. But other elements would seem out of place even in cool U.S. churches. Holding services in a microbrewery is an effective way to hammer home the point that church doesn't have to be the way it always has been.

The message is getting out. A mostly American and British group at first, The Well now regularly attracts people from Belgium, France, Holland, Portugal, Romania, Bulgaria, Ghana and Lebanon. Some wouldn't be attending church if The Well didn't exist.

There is an added sense of urgency when you undergo such self-examination in a land where being religious is not exactly de rigueur. The data don't yet reveal a similar awakening in the Europeans around me. But I have faith.
Mr. Wingfield is an editorial-page writer for The Wall Street Journal Europe.


Cami said...

This is precious, and really ministers to me, it's how I feel about things just now somehow: "they're smaller than the sun, but they shine brighter."

Rita L. Betti said...

Wow, just as the church ought to be! Thanks, I.I. for posting this. I love it . . . maybe I'll move to Europe.

I.I. said...

my church is planting in Amsterdam next year, and this little article was an encouragement to the team.