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Kåre Melhus

Theory says Christianity may have contributed to a secular lifestyle

“The challenge for us is to welcome people into our churches, give them time in their process of discovering what it means to be a Christian, while holding on to Biblical standards”, says professor of religious studies Evert Van de Poll.

Photo: Dmitry Goykolov. Unsplash (CC0).

Evert Van de Poll, professor of Religious studies and missiology at the Evangelical Theological Faculty at Leuven (Belgium), quotes a theory saying that Christianity may have contributed to the processes of secularisation in Europe.

It began with the idea of a secular state. Then came the secularisation of the public sphere (schools, hospitals, politics, etc.). Since the 1970s there is a move away from traditional Christian values to secular liberal values, and a decline of religious practice on a scale not seen elsewhere.

He points out that there are many theories why people leave the Christian faith. One theory says that Christianity through the centuries has taught that nature is not inhabited by gods and spirits, but that it is the work of the Creator who is beyond nature.

Thus, Christianity got rid of superstitions. Instead, it taught that man has been given dominion over nature. In Europe, this has led to an emphasis on rational study of nature, science and technology in order to master the forces of nature for the well-being of man.

Sociologists argue that this has paved the way for a more rational and secular world view, as compared to other religions.

Van de Poll says that Christians in other parts of the world, down through the ages, have been forced to change their religion to Buddhism or Islam or to secular worldviews such as communism.

This is still the case in some countries. In Western Europe there has not been such outside pressures. People have started to abandon Christianity for other reasons, for example because they found Christian beliefs and church practice irrelevant.

The striking thing is that for Europeans, the alternative is not another religion but no religion at all. There is a widespread feeling among secularized people that adopting the Christian religion (or Islam for that matter) is ‘going back’ to something of the past.

Some sociologists say that Christianity is the religion of the exit from all religion. In a paradoxical manner this corresponds the claim of the church that Jesus is the unique Savior and that there is no valid religion outside Christianity.


Evert Van de Poll, professor of Religious studies and missiology at the Evangelical Theological Faculty at Leuven, Belgium.

If one looks 10 years down the line, Van de Poll predicts that Christians who are committed to their faith will remain a strong and influential minority – as they are now already. Today’s society is secularizing and multireligious at the same time.

Christians are under increased pressure to conform to the ideas and lifestyle of a secular environment. Non-religious people also experience pressure because they are often not happy with secular explanations of their existential experiences. “In a situation like that, being religious becomes a more and more matter of conviction and of choice,” he says.

In terms of evangelism, evangelicals have traditionally been better at reaching out to nominal church members than to non-religious people outside the church. Evangelicalism is to a large extent a renewal movement within Christianity, mainly Protestantism.

Non-believers have existential experiences, they do ask spiritual questions, and Van de Poll encourages the evangelical Christians to work on understanding secular people from the inside as it were, and listen to the questions they ask.

Nowadays many secular people are very concerned about finding solutions to the environmental crisis. How does that relate to believing in God and the gospel of Jesus? “We evangelicals do not have a long tradition in answering such questions”, Van de Poll says.

The Lausanne Europe Conversation and Gathering, all happening this year, tries, among other things, to respond to the challenges Van de Poll calls for. He is himself involved as a multiplex speaker at the Gathering in Poland in October, on the topic of Christian nominalism.

Other multiplexes address environmental issues, immigration and the Gospel and the marketplace.

Another challenge for the evangelicals, according to Van de Poll, is that the church is often perceived as a hindrance by non-Christians searching for spirituality. More than half of the Europeans are church members who do not participate in church life.

They are called ‘nominal’, he would call them ‘marginal’, they live in the margin of the church. Between 10 and 40 percent of Western- Europeans say they are non-religious. In fact, they are unchurched rather that totally closed off from any religious beliefs and spiritual experiences.

Research brings out that some non-religious people pray, believe in God, are inspired by Jesus, but this is disconnected from being member of a church, which often is associated with rules, things you have to do, and an organization with membership and expectations of regular attendance.

“The challenge for us is to welcome people into our churches and give them time in their process of discovering the faith and what it means to be a Christian, while at the same time holding on to Biblical standards”, Van de Poll says.




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