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Farewell to Traditional Religion in the Netherlands
In the previous two issues of the Banner of Truth we focused on Canada, a nation where thousands are saying farewell to the church, and the United States, a country where many are forsaking a Christian lifestyle. Before we take a close look at our NRC churches in North America, we first want to cross the Atlantic Ocean to see how the situation is in the Netherlands, especially in our sister denomination there.
There are good reasons for this intermezzo. The Netherlands is the country where the founding fathers of the NRC came from and where some of us were born. We still feel a close bond with the church there, called the “Gereformeerde Gemeenten” (Reformed Congregations). Moreover, the developments in the “old country” may contain lessons for us in the “new world.”
One of the most frightening developments in the Netherlands is an almost total breakdown of religion in the traditional, Christian sense of the word. Our sister denomination seems to be in the eye of the storm. Sadly, this leads to an increasing number of people leaving the church and the faith of their fathers.
NRC growth slowing down
On January 1, 2006, the NRC in the Netherlands numbered 103,272 members. Fifty years earlier, this number was well over 59,000. For more than half a century, there was steady growth and expansion. The 1996 Yearbook reported 95,090 members; while that of 2001 indicated a membership total of 99,185. Five years later this rose to the figure mentioned above. The last decade or two, however, has seen some remarkable changes in the demographics of the NRC churches.
First of all, there is a shift from the major cities to smaller townships and villages. Many families, in particular those with little children, seem to flee the urban centers because of congestion, deteriorating living standards, and growing crime rates. Secondly, many church people living in the western part of the country are moving to the center and the east of the Netherlands. This applies less for those living in the province of Zeeland than for those living in the provinces of South Holland and North Holland, the areas where one can find cities such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague. Thirdly, big congregations tend to become bigger, whereas some of the smaller ones seem to become ever smaller. The availability of Reformed education on the high-school level plays an important role in this. “Birds of a feather flock together.” NRC families are seen flocking together in areas around Reformed high schools.
When we look at the developments within the NRC, several positive points can be mentioned. It would be ungrateful to overlook them. Yet, there are also reasons for concern. One of these reasons has to do with the fact that an increasing number of members, baptized as well as professing, are leaving the church in which they grew up. In 2005 this number totaled 1,121 people. Mainly as a result of births, the NRC still continued to grow, albeit with only 465 souls. For 2004 this number was 727, compared with 1,062 for 2003. Expressed in percentages, the growth of the NRC declined from 0.7% in the year 2000 to 0.4% in 2005.
Our tentative conclusion is that the growth experienced in former years has nearly come to a standstill. The number of people leaving the denomination is much higher than that of people joining it from outside. The majority of those who are leaving join a different church, in many cases, a church where the scriptural-experimental preaching is not heard. A sizable minority, for the greater part consisting of young people, does not join any church but turns its back upon the Christian faith altogether. Every year the NRC in the Netherlands is losing the size of a congregation of 1,000 souls. That comes down to the entire congregation of Lethbridge or more than the congregations of Franklin Lakes and Fort Macleod together!
The young people of the NRC in the Netherlands form a special point of concern. A recent survey among a large number of baptized members revealed some staggering facts. It is to be feared that, unless the Lord intervenes, 25% of the baptized members will leave the church. There certainly is a good number of serious- minded young people, but on the other end of the spectrum there is a group of young people with no interest whatsoever. Between these two there is a middle group of young people who are undecided. Although most of them still attend church and catechism class, they are strongly influenced by the world during the rest of the week. It is sobering to read that many of these young people indicate that their parents hardly or never speak with them about the service of the Lord. Is it any better on this side of the ocean? That is a question to think about!
What is the situation in other denominations in the Netherlands? Statistics show that in this country with a little over 16 million citizens, approximately 7 million people are still registered as church members. In 1970 this number was close to 10 million. Today the number of “Christians” is less than 45% of the total population. This percentage is quite low when we compare it to other European countries. Only Sweden has a lower percentage of church members!
A closer look at the composition of the individual denominations is equally discouraging. A report of the Scientific Council for the Policy of the Government, published in December 2006, makes clear that the Protestant churches are continually losing ground. The Roman Catholic Church, with 4.4 million members, has become the biggest church in the Netherlands. The Protestant Church of the Netherlands, which came into being in 2004 due to a merger of the Dutch Reformed Church, the Gereformeerde Kerken (Christian Reformed), and the Lutheran Church, has approximately 2 million members. According to the report, people classified as “orthodox reformed” number 238,000 while the“experiential reformed” are estimated at 221,000.
Church attendance is another reason for concern. Whereas in 1996 42% of the adult members attended at least one service in two weeks (a minimal performance by itself!), this number dwindled to 14% by 2004. Of the total Dutch population only 12% attends church every week. Around 1900, almost 100% of the newborn children were baptized. A century later, this percentage was down to approximately 25%.
How will it be in the future? It is hard to make predictions, for we are of yesterday, and know nothing (Job 8:9). Yet one thing is clear: if the current trend continues, churches will become even emptier in the coming years. In a recent study, called “Religious Changes in the Netherlands,” the following prognosis was given:
2000 2010 2020
No religion 62% 68% 72%
Roman Catholic 16% 13% 10%
Dutch Reformed 7% 4% 2%
Reformed 5% 3% 2%
Islam 5% 6% 8%
Remaining 3% 5% 7%
In 2000, 9.8 million did not belong to a church. If the present developments are not reversed, this number will be 12.1 million in 2020. Each year about 115,000 people are leaving the church. That is the situation in the “old country.” A nation, once called the “Israel of the West,” has turned its back upon the ways and commandments of the Lord. The Christian heritage is considered something of the past. In other words, the Netherlands has entered a post-Christian era. Who would not weep? There is reason to be deeply concerned about the course of that country, about the hardships faced by our sister denomination, and particularly about the future of the younger generation.
Rise of Islam
Another significant development in the Netherlands is the rise of Islam. Whereas the number of people attending Christian churches is continually decreasing, a false religion is making headway. This phenomenon is by no means restricted to the Netherlands. The rapid expansion of Islam is something that can be observed all over the world. Although Christianity still claims the most followers (about one third of the world population belongs to a Christian church of some sort), the 1.3 billion Muslims on our globe form one fourth of the world’s population. Their number is growing at a pace of 2.1% per year.
This development can also be traced in the Netherlands, where presently 950,000 Muslims are living within its borders. Whereas 5% of the population in the year 2000 was Islamic, by 2020 this percentage will likely rise to 8. That means that the Dutch Muslim community is likely to grow from 800,000 to 1.3 million within twenty years. Every year, at least 25,000 people are crossing the line to the mosque. The day may be coming that Muslims will outnumber Roman Catholics as the biggest religious group in the Netherlands.
The question may be asked whether the Netherlands and Europe in general are being Islamized. Some writers and politicians leave no doubt about that. The number of Muslims in contemporary Europe is estimated to be 50 million. It is expected by some to double in 20 years. By 2025, one third of all European children will be born to Muslim families. Today Mohammed is already the most popular name for newborn boys in Brussels, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and other major European cities. In October 2006, the German author Henryk M. Broder told the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant that young people who love freedom had better emigrate. “Europe as we know it will no longer exist 20 years from now.” It seems that many Dutchmen have already drawn that conclusion themselves. The number of emigrants has rapidly increased over the past few years!
Others believe that the threat of Islam should not be exaggerated. According to them, statistics prove that the Muslims will not become a majority for many years to come. Immigration laws have become stricter. Authority in Moroccan families, for instance, is being eroded, and secularization takes place in Muslim communities as well as among the native Dutch. There should be no reason to fear that around 2050 the Netherlands will sigh under a tyrannical Islamic regime. It is argued that, rather than becoming defensive and agitated, we should reach out to our Muslim neighbors with understanding and friendliness. In addition to that, are Christians not called to bring the message of the Bible among these foreigners and fellow-countrymen?
There is some truth to all these statements. Indeed, there is a task for the church, and, yes, we should watch against panic reactions. At the same time we should not be naive and lose our vigilance. The reality is that Islam is on the rise, also in the Netherlands. Each day, more Islamic immigrants are crossing the borders. Muslim families tend to be much bigger than average European families today. Muslims who were not very religious in their country of origin—think especially of the Turkish immigrants—tend to become more conservative in their new environment. Shocked by the decadence of the Western world and hurt by negative reactions (whether real or perceived), they seek refuge in city ghettos. Women begin to cover their faces behind the traditional veil while men turn to a stricter form of Islam. It is true that not every Muslim is a terrorist; yet, under the influence of developments elsewhere and incited by fundamentalist imams or Arabic television stations, moderate Muslims can quickly turn into radical adherents of a violent type of religion. Islam is not quite the most peaceful religion thinkable!
Call to repentance
There surely is reason to be watchful. Islam is a missionary religion with an unbending nature. Territory conquered for the “House of Islam” will never be given up anymore and serves as a foothold for further conquests. Given the Iranian ambition to export the Islamic revolution worldwide and the billions of dollars flowing from oil-rich Saudi Arabia towards the funding of mosques and training centers abroad, there is no reason to be optimistic. The German church historian Professor Rudolf Grulich believes that Europe in particular is a target of the Muslims’ global mission strategy. Thousands of European men and women have meanwhile embraced Islam, and many of them are more radical than their teachers.
Yet it must be said in all honesty that the biggest threat does not come from the world of Islam. It is the apostasy of the church that renders us vulnerable in the face of the Islamic awakening. Muslims in general have strong convictions, and more than a few of them are ready to give their lives for the “holy war.” Unlike them many Western people have lost their convictions and even their sense of identity. A liberal lifestyle fueled by fun-loving has replaced the old faith with its God-given values. Sadly enough, the state of Christianity presents a sorry picture. Not the strength of Islam but the weakness of our church life is the biggest problem we are facing.
In the Bible we read about unfaithful Jonah. The prophet believed that the ungodly Assyrians were the greatest threat for Israel. He did not want to see, however, that he himself was the main obstacle. This applies to us as well. The rise of Islam is a call to repentance. What a blessing it would be if our eyes were opened for our guilt, our lukewarm attitude, our blindness. Then there would be hope even in the most depressing times. “Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from His fierce anger, that we perish not?” (Jonah 3:9).
— Rev. C. Sonnevelt
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Bekijk de hele uitgave van donderdag 1 maart 2007
The Banner of Truth | 24 Pagina's
Bekijk de hele uitgave van donderdag 1 maart 2007
The Banner of Truth | 24 Pagina's