Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Learning from the Dutch about Post-Christendom

Recently the Rev. Dr. Edwin Chr. van Driel, Directors’ Bicentennial Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at the Seminary, led a World Mission Initiative trip to the Netherlands as part of his Church Amidst Secularization class. “Dutch society has become highly secularized, with a quarter of the population espousing atheism and only a small percentage participating in church life,” Edwin notes. “The purpose of the trip was to learn how Christian communities function in this environment—and how they relate to their neighbors.”

According to the 2016 “God in the Netherlands” report, only 25 percent of the population counts itself as a member of the Christian church, and only 14 percent believes in a personal God. The overwhelming majority—82 percent—never or hardly ever visits a church. Atheism is on the rise—up from 14 percent in 2006 to 24 percent today, and the percentage of those claiming to be “spiritual but not religious” is down from 40 percent to 30 percent. “This trend has been happening for a long time,” says Edwin. “Pastors we encountered talked about ‘the children and grandchildren of the lost son.’”

The trip participants held as a premise the assumption that, when it comes to these issues, the church in Western Europe is only a generation or two ahead of the where we now find the church in the U.S. All indicators suggest that in another 25-30 years this country will face a similar situation. “So we asked the questions, ‘What can we already learn from the Dutch church?’ and ‘What would they say to us as we prepare for a post-Christian society?’” Prior to the trip, Edwin’s class had prepared by studying books about the church in the Netherlands. The students synthesized that learning with their experience of the Dutch church by writing a post-trip reflection paper.

“On the trip, it was exciting to see how, in the midst of this environment, the church has embraced notions of missional redevelopment and church planting.” In Amsterdam, the group visited four new church plants, representing the “embryonic” stage (six months old) to virtually financially independent “adulthood” (12 years old), as well as a Taizé ministry for young adults, a monastic community “smack dab in the middle of the Red Light District,” and evening services in two of the city’s oldest church buildings (built in the 14th and 16th centuries) that focused on offering a place of prayer and peace for those to whom church life has become foreign.

In Rotterdam, Edwin took the group to visit the Pilgrim Fathers Church—a 15th-century congregation from whose church building the Speedwell (companion to the Mayflower) left for the New World. Today, the Church is nationally known for its missionally redeveloped ministry. One of its pastors is ordained mostly for witness to the congregation’s Muslim neighbors, and another leads a new intercultural church plant in an economically deprived neighborhood. A visit to the small farming community of Jorwert, where the early 12th-century church building has become the base for a new monastic movement led by the local pastor, rounded out the group’s experience of Christian communities in the Netherlands.

By affording students such learning opportunities both in and out of the classroom, Edwin is joining in the Spirit’s work of forming and equipping people for ministries familiar and yet to unfold and communities present and yet to be gathered.