When can a Western European be considered a Church-attending Christian?
Perhaps frustratingly for an evangelical mission or church leader, church- attending Christians are predominantly to be found in the traditionally Roman Catholic countries of WE (Western Europe). Moreover, on the Pew measure of religious commitment (measuring frequency of attendance, frequency of prayer, the degree of importance of religion, and personal belief in God), the most religiously committed, on this index are Portugal, Italy, Ireland, and Spain. The least observant are the UK, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden. A neutral observer with limited knowledge of Protestant evaluations of Roman Catholic Christianity might wonder why missionaries from the latter countries are being sent to the former(!).
When Pew measured for the highest level of religious commitment (by an individual scoring two from four of the following list: attending church at least monthly, praying daily, belief in God with certainty, and religion being very important to them), it’s clear that most Christians in WE show only moderate to low levels of religious commitment. Despite this, they are more likely than others to report that God rewards, punishes, communicates, and interacts with them. At least half of these believe in a biblical God.
The Pew researchers highlight the very strong link between religious observance (not just identity) and civic participation. This results in highly committed Christians also being involved in charitable, voluntary, and community groups and activities. It’s possible that this spills over into their increased likelihood of expressing nationalist views and saying that ancestry is key to national identity. It may also be connected to the fact that they are more likely to express negative views of Muslims, Jews and immigrants, than do the ‘nones’, and are more likely to describe immigrants from Africa and the Middle East as neither honest nor hardworking.
What questions does the Report raise for missionaries serving in, and sent from, the countries of Western Europe?
The report makes important comparisons for missionaries bound for Europe from the USA. These are valuable and, for example, Pew researchers note that 53 percent of Americans say that religion is important to them whilst for WEs the figure is a mere 11 percent. Missionaries from the USA must adjust assumptions and expectations when talking to people about faith and belief.
Even where a missionary, or church leader, might struggle with a non-practising Western European’s claim to Christian identity, there remains the need to take such claims seriously and to discern what meaning is attached to such self- descriptions. Being comfortable in working with such expressions of implicit faith is a necessary skill for the missionary in Western Europe. The report shows clearly that there are many WEs for whom Christianity serves as a religious, social, and cultural marker. Accepting this need not imply a negation of the evangelistic motivation, but it might require a revision of evangelistic assumptions.
Occasionally people ask how a missiologist can write about Europe from an office in Sydney. It’s a fair question, but it’s also fair to ask, ‘How can a missionary from the irreligious Netherlands do mission in the highly religious context of Portugal?’ Of course, my Australian context inevitably influences how I engage with Europe. Equally, a Dutch missionary, shaped by his or her Dutch irreligious context (if the Pew report is correct), will be deeply influenced by this and it will impact on how they do mission among the highly religious Portuguese, sometimes with negative consequences. In fact, one might suggest that because the Netherlands is the only Western European country where ‘nones’ (48%) outnumber ‘Christians’ (41%) and where 40% of people have a negative view of religion, it is time for missionaries to turn their attention to the Netherlands as a mission- receiving field rather than Portugal, Italy, Spain, or France!
An effective national or cross-cultural worker might wisely reflect on how to build connections to the 65% of WEs who believe they have a soul, particularly those who say they are either religious and/or spiritual, for whom the level of belief in a soul increases to between 75-85 percent. Identifying the potential for such connections is a particular strength of this report and there are probably other leads that lie waiting to be discovered.
A final observation – Sport!
My co-editors will probably smile with me making this point! Although 36 percent of WEs are involved in a sports club, only 31 percent of highly committed Christians are similarly engaged. In contrast, 39 percent of the ‘nones’ are involved. If Christians want to meet non- believers, they will need to get a lot fitter and take up sporting activities to meet them! This is especially true for the soccer-mad (and Roman Catholic) European nations like Spain and Italy. Regular church attendance is almost certainly a constraint on regular involvement in sport or recreational activities for highly committed Christians. Even cross-cultural missionaries are prone to making similar mistakes. Pew’s researchers note the tendency for friendship circles to largely include people with a similar religious identity: ‘nones’ hang out with ‘nones’; church- attending Christians with other church- attending Christians, for example.
Making social connections no doubt contributes to the report’s observation that, for example, in France, 8 percent of those who have been raised religiously unaffiliated say that they are now Christian. This is encouraging. Across Europe, the number of former ‘nones’ who have embraced Christianity sits in the region of 10 to 12 percent.
Associate Professor of Missiology, Morling College. firstname.lastname@example.org