Evangelical Engagement pt 3: “Why Evangelical Churches Struggle in Europe”

This is my summary of an EXCELLENT post by Patrick Nachtigall at three-worlds.com.  I’m still thinking through the damage that christendom (the state church) does to the pursuit of biblical Christianity.  Nachtigall has some important insights.

In what follows, I have kept the labels that Nachtigall gives to the thirteen factors, but otherwise paraphrased his material (except what is in quotations.)


Why do evangelical churches struggle in Europe?  The average size for evangelical congregations seems to be around 20.  (I see this in Croatia, and concur with his estimate of the average size.)

Some factors that are often considered include:

  • Europe is post-religious and post-Christian.
  • Christendom (my term) has enabled evil here, in ways that perhaps it did not in South America, Africa.
  • Religious wars—again, Christendom.
  • Corruption of Christendom.

Other factors not often considered:

  1. Volunteerism. On the whole, Europe does not value volunteerism the way America and the UK do. The idea of giving 10-15 hours per week to any non-profit is foreign to Europeans. They expect such things to be done by professionals, whether through the church or through the bureaucracy.
  2. The part-time pastor. Because of the size of churches in Europe, most pastors are part-time. Because their cultures do not value volunteerism, European believers simply don’t support part-time pastors the way American Christians do. This leads to pastoral burnout, flaccid memberships stunted discipleship, etc.
  3. The commute. With churches so small, evangelicals in European cities often face long commutes to their services and meetings. This makes gathering multiple times per week difficult. The percentage of Europeans who own cars is much smaller than the percentage of Americans who do so. Also, churches tend to not be well integrated into their neighborhoods (i.e., no members live near where the church meets), which often means that there is no outreach around the meeting place.
  4. The minority complex. European evangelicals feel marginalized by their society. They may face persecution (hard or soft), and are at the least treated as a cult or sect. Evangelicals sometimes respond to this by developing a separatist attitude, refusing to engage non-evangelicals, engaging in caustic criticism of the state religion (“Catholics worship the devil!”), etc. It will be impossible to reach Europe for Christ if we think that the only people who are worth reaching out to and building relationships with are the people from our little group, or the people who receive us warmly.
  5. Legalism. As evangelicals face hostility from the culture around them, they can become fearful. Fear often leads to legalism, “an extreme intolerance for anyone who doesn’t practice Christianity exactly the way” they do. This leads to the loss of young people from the church; “adults become extremely protective of their church traditions and very inflexible in theology.” “The younger generations of the families in the church wrestle with a European pluralistic world that the church does not even engage.” This point deserves a lot more unpacking.
  6. Power-blocks/Small family business model. European evangelical churches tend to be dominated by a single family. This makes good decision-making difficult. It’s hard to develop leaders who are not members of the family.
  7. The lack of a talent-pool. Evangelical churches tend to depend on programming and activities, all of which demand volunteers. In already small congregations, the number of committed, mature people who possess the needed gifts is small.
  8. High expense/low income. Programming and activities require financial resources as well, which are in short supply in congregations the size of the average European evangelical congregation. Not having a building means that the culture around them, impressed by the buildings and monuments of the state church, views evangelicals as illegitimate. Church members often pay taxes to the state church, and resent being asked to give (or leaders fear asking their members to give.) With no culture of stewardship, finances are often a huge problem.
  9. The overly-expressive style. Evangelical worship tends to be highly emotional and expressive. Traditional European populations tend to be reserved, or only comfortable expressing certain emotions (e.g., anger) while highly uncomfortable with other emotions (e.g., joy, gratitude). This is likely why the largest successes in European evangelicalism are highly expressive churches with immigrant and refugee populations.
  10. Imitating American evangelical structures/high maintenance. European evangelicals have attempted to import wholesale the approaches and structures of Willow Creek or Saddleback, but European culture is not a perfect fit. The resources are much more scarce.
  11. Outside players and division. Small European evangelical churches have the same problems with church shoppers that American churches have; people who are unsatisfied with their current church, then move into a new church and cause similar problems for their new congregation. The pastors of European evangelical churches are stretched and inadequately supported. Church shoppers sometimes carry sharp knives.
  12. Ethnic churches. As noted, evangelical churches made up of immigrants have had some success in Europe. These churches often do not realize how much their success is due to their approach being tailored to their immigrant culture, things that will not translate well if they attempt to move outside their ethnic circles.
  13. The cultural christianity factor. “Too often the evangelical forgets that the European’s whole society and family structure can be tied to their state religion.” It is easy for evangelicals to demonize the state church, and be demonized in return.

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