City to City Europe held a conference in Paris last October with over 500 in attendance from dozens of countries. Besides me, one of the other speakers was Grace Davie, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Exeter in Great Britain. Professor Davie’s lecture, “Religion in Modern Europe,” was a great encouragement to European Christian leaders who are incessantly told religion is dying out on their continent and a Christian mission there is a hopeless cause. It should also encourage any of us who serve in the secular West.
Inherited Religion’s Decline
Davie explains that for centuries in Europe religion was inherited. Most Europeans were born into their church and remained members unless something quite drastic was done to end the association. Most European countries had one national church that was a part of the racial-national identity. If you were Polish, you were Catholic; if you were Swedish, you were Lutheran; and if you were Scottish, you were Presbyterian. In past times, even though there was never one dominant church in the United States, you weren’t considered a good American unless you went to a church of some kind.
This kind of inherited religion is declining rapidly, especially in Europe. Our late-modern culture is marked by what Robert Bellah calls expressive individualism—the belief that identity comes through self-expression, through discovering one’s most authentic desires and being free to be one’s authentic self. This powerful belief has weakened not only the church but all instutitions in society since it insists no external authority has the right to tell the individual what is right and wrong or how to live. Due to this individualism, the number of people in Europe who go to church and identify as Christians is declining. That number is also declining in North America. Even here inherited religion is losing its influence.
More to the Picture
But Davie shows this isn’t the whole picture. Yes, “nominal” or inherited Christianity is declining. This is why fewer people attend or belong to churches overall. On the other hand, even in Europe—against all expectations—other forms of Christian faith are growing and reentering public life. One reason for this is the influx of Christians from the global South. In China, Africa, and other places around the world, Christianity is growing rapidly as those societies modernize. As people immigrate to Europe and the U.S. from Africa, Latin America, and Asia, they plant new churches or strengthen other churches that are growing and reaching Anglos.
Why? Because while inherited religion will decline in the modern age, freely chosen religion will not. The growing Christian churches today are evangelical and Pentecostal. They emphasize the biblical call to “choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15) and proclaim the biblical command to confess our own faith, not merely go along with the choices of our family or community (Ezek. 18). These churches teach that nominal, formal religion is not enough. There must be a radical, inward conversion (Deut. 30:6; Jer. 9:25; Rom. 2:29). As long as Christianity highlights these important biblical concepts and lifts up heart-changing personal faith, it will reach many contemporary people.
Cities and Christianity’s Rise
Davie, drawing on her sociology background, also observes that cities are much of the reason why religion is growing in Western societies. While cities, she says, have been seen in the past as “beacons of a more irreligious future,” now they are the beacons where religion in general and Christianity in particular is thriving. This is because cities are more multiethnic and globalized, and because “new forms of religion” that reach out to modern people are being deployed. (For example, Davie says London currently has more growing churches than anywhere else in Great Britain.)
In short, our societies are simultaneously becoming both more secular and more religious in the Western world—including North America. This is, as Davie says, “a challenging combination.” Neither is belief in God inevitably disappearing nor, in some simplistic way, is God “back.” Davie says the religious landscape is now “paradoxical.” What’s going away is inherited, institutionalized Christianity—what many call “nominal Christianity.” Yet new patterns of orthodox Christian faith (and of other religions) are growing too. Contrary to the confident predictions of its death, religious faith “is an increasing presence in the modern world order.”
An Exciting Challenge
Grace Davies’s message is both exciting and challenging for Christians in cities today. We should expect increasing skepticism and perhaps greater opposition. Gone is that great “canopy” of nominal, personally non-devout Christians who thought religion was good and important for society—and weren’t very difficult to draw into Christian churches. On the other hand, contemporary people have the same intuitions of God, sin, and spiritual longings for love, meaning, and grace that their ancestors did. People will hear the same gospel message. Some will say, “You are mad!” (Acts 26:24). But others will be cut to the heart and ask, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37).