Our traditionally christian Kingdom of the Netherlands is quickly becoming non-christian. A recent survey, carried out by the Dutch Protestant University in Amsterdam, found that, for the first time in history, more Dutchmen say they do not believe in God than there are those who are convinced that God indeed exists. Yes, there is a large segment in the middle of those who simply don’t know and of those who may believe in a vague ‘something,’ but it becomes ever clearer that faith in God is no longer self-evident for the majority of the Dutch people. And thus the churches are becoming more and more empty and the support for the institutional church is gradually drying up.
The annual national fundraising campaign for a number of denominations once again shows a further erosion of the importance many people attach to their church. The amount that the churches have raised is, once again, a few percent lower than the year before. This year the members of the participating churches gave a total of around 230 million euros. And, once more, the results show that on the average Protestants give substantially more than Catholics. A Dutch Catholic family gives on average gives 80 euro’s per year, while a Dutch Protestant family gives an annual donation of around 200 euros.
Protestant denominations, as for instance the United Protestant Church of the Netherlands, fear its membership and church attendance will further diminish. But we hear even more pessimistic sounds from the Catholic Church. The archbishop of Utrecht (the highest Catholic leader in the Netherlands), monsignor van Eijk, recently stated that he believes that by 2020 only some twenty of the current three hundred parishes will still exist. This dramatic development, in his estimation, results from a sharp decrease in vocations, a change in giving patterns and a rampant spiritual superficiality. The archbishop was heavily criticized. He is accused by many of himself being a major part of the problem. It appears that he does not mind so much that the church is getting smaller. He prefers to have a small church of faithful (and, in particular, very orthodox and obedient) believers over a larger church with people who want to think for themselves and want, in a number of areas, to follow their own interpretations of the rules for faith and conduct that originate in Rome. One might say that the archbishop has a view of the church that is based on the idea of a ‘remnant,’ that is left when the chaff has been separated from the wheat. Many, however, feel this is a totally wrong approach. They believe the church must be a place that offers a spiritual home for as many people as possible, where the gospel of our Lord is handed on in such ways that it will be understood by contemporary people—old and, especially, young. It seems that the archbishop is either unable or unwilling to grasp this
Unfortunately, the archbishop is not the only church leader who is stuck in this kind of thinking. There are parallels between him and leaders I could point to in my own (Adventist) church. Also ‘with us’ the question is pressing: Do we want to intentionally contribute to a situation in which only a small group of ‘true’ believers remains, or will we do all we can to translate the gospel in such ways that it will not just provide direction, but will also offer space and freedom. For me the choice is clear. I will go for the latter option.