Church closures in Europe sometimes grab headlines, especially if lofty cathedrals become venues for activities uncommon to churches. A few years ago, the Wall Street Journal reported some memorable examples: Buyers of a former Lutheran church in Edinburgh had turned the 150-year-old Gothic structure into a Frankenstein-themed pub. In Bristol, England, the 250-year-old St. Paul’s Church is now home to Circomedia, a circus training school.
The report also noted that the trend of church closures was advancing especially fast in the Netherlands, where Roman Catholic officials expected 1,600 church buildings to be out of use by the end of the decade. At least 700 Protestant churches were expected to close within five years. Former churches are now supermarkets, flower shops, bookstores, and gyms. At St. Joseph’s in Arnhem, a group of skating enthusiasts turned the building into a skate park, where sunlight filters through stained-glass windows onto the rails and skate ramps below.
It’s a sad trend, particularly for Protestants in a region with deep roots in the Reformation. But it’s not the whole story.
Big Hope in a Day of Small Things
Though they don’t attract headlines, on most Sunday mornings, more than 400 people gather for worship at the Free Baptist Church in Papendrecht, just outside the Netherland’s port city of Rotterdam. In a plain building with low ceilings and a simple platform, the congregation sings worship songs, listens to expository preaching, and celebrates the Lord’s Supper.
Kees van Kralingen serves as a teaching elder at the church, and he also serves as a council member for TGC Nederland & Vlaanderen, the Netherlands-based coalition and website with close ties to The Gospel Coalition (TGC).
The Dutchman grew up with a Reformed background, came to saving faith at 21, and later became Reformed Baptist. But his full-time ministry didn’t begin until he retired from a 30-year career in chemical research and development. At age 57, he sensed a “late calling” to devote his next years to serving the church, and he saw the available time as “a remarkable opportunity from the Lord to serve him.”
During his theological studies, he discovered TGC’s Foundation Documents and found them helpful. He also liked the idea of forming a coalition with other Reformed pastors in the region, especially in light of the fragmentations and divisions among many evangelical churches in the country. “If we really want to reach out to the Dutch population with the gospel, we need to work together more, strengthen ourselves in biblical gospel ministry, correct ourselves, and also arm ourselves against all kinds of other influences that try to lead us astray,” van Kralingen said. “So I thought the whole idea of a gospel coalition would be very beneficial to us.”
If we really want to reach out to the Dutch population with the gospel, we need to work together more.
The council now has nine pastors from nine different cities in the Netherlands, and it held its first conference last October. The group also maintains a website with articles and has translated two books by Don Carson Carson into Dutch. They hope to grow their ministry by producing more biblically sound resources, and also to work together more in a country where they’re a small minority.
Indeed, though he’s encouraged by churches like his own and others in the area, van Kralingen doesn’t paint an unrealistic picture of the landscape of Christianity in the Netherlands and other parts of Europe. “It’s still a day of small things,” he says.
Finding Light in the Darkness
Statistics vary, but a study from the Pew Research Center in 2018 reported that 15 percent of survey participants in the Netherlands said they attend church at least once a month. (Van Kralingen says many regular church attenders live in a kind of “Bible belt” region with stronger, gospel-centered churches.)
Forty-eight percent in the study identified themselves as religiously unaffiliated.
Another 27 percent identified as “non-practicing Christians,” but the study’s description of that category showed the inherent problem with the contradictory label: “Although many non-practicing Christians say they do not believe in God ‘as described in the Bible,’ they do tend to believe in some other higher power or spiritual force.”
From his study in the Netherlands, van Kralingen says some unbelievers may be less hostile to the gospel than they were a few decades ago, as postmodernism and relativism have taken hold in Europe and many other parts of the world. But he says the vague spirituality that many express in the highly secularized nation is far from the truth of the gospel of Christ.
Others have imbibed theological liberalism in mainline denominations, though he says some of those groups have become more evangelical as membership declines among people less committed to the Bible’s teaching. Other churches are fragmented, and internal debates among evangelicals continue to pose significant challenges.
Still, van Kralingen is encouraged to see gospel-centered church plants sprouting up in areas where other churches have declined. He notes a growing church in nearby Rotterdam, where the 350 people attending have an average age of 30.
He also notes a newly formed, much smaller church of a few dozen people of mixed ethnicities in the southern part of the city. He says he was encouraged by the group’s answer when leaders asked what they wanted in a church: “They expressed a desire to hear expository preaching and to reach the people of Rotterdam with the gospel.”
The Gospel for the Continent
While cultures and languages vary across Europe, van Kralingen is glad to see the gospel continuing to advance in other parts of the continent. He regularly meets with a group of other TGC-connected pastors across Europe, and they discuss how to work together and seize opportunities for ministry. Those opportunities dramatically expanded this spring as Ukrainian refugees flooded into surrounding nations after the Russian invasion, and local congregations worked to extend material and spiritual help.
TGC-connected groups and websites already exist in Albania, France, Italy, and Slovakia, among other countries, and a Nordics website is set to launch in the fall. (TGC also plans to launch a site with biblical resources translated into Ukrainian and Russian to serve Christians in the region.) Van Kralingen is also working with TGC’s European coordinator Tim Savage and others on a small team to cultivate contacts in Poland, Croatia, Serbia, Spain, Portugal, and Turkey.
He finds the Albanian group especially encouraging, given that its dictator in 1967 declared Albania the world’s first atheistic country: “But now this dictator is dead, and the gospel is fully alive.”
But now this dictator is dead, and the gospel is fully alive.
Even if the numbers of believers are small in many parts of Europe, van Kralingen says he sees the presence of faithful pastors and churches and growing spiritual interest as “a moving testimony to God’s grace” in a region that largely abandoned its Reformation heritage. “We have not deserved this grace,” he says. “But it seems that the Lord has not abandoned us.”