Eiffel Tower in Paris

Christian beliefs and church attendance are playing a much smaller role in Europeans’ lives in general than in the past. Rick Wade gives a snapshot of the place and nature of Christianity in Europe.

At the end of a talk about the state of the evangelical mind in America, the subject turned to Europe, and a man said with great confidence, “The churches in Europe are all empty!” I’ve heard that said before. It makes for a good missions sermon; however, it doesn’t quite do justice to the situation. Not all the churches in Europe are empty! The situation isn’t like in Dallas, Texas, where churches dot the landscape, but there are thriving churches across the continent.

Listen to the Podcast That said, however, there is more than just a grain of truth in the claim. Church attendance in Europe is down. Traditional Christian beliefs are less widely held.

It’s important to know what the situation is in Europe for a few reasons.

First, we have a tendency to write Europe off in a way we don’t other parts of the world. The church is struggling there, but it isn’t a lost cause by any means! Maybe we can even learn from the thinking and life’s experience of believers across the Atlantic.

Second, learning about the church around the world is good because it broadens our understanding of the interaction of Christianity and society. This should be of interest to us here in America.

Let’s look at a few numbers in the area of church attendance. To provide a contrast with the situation today, the best estimate for church attendance in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century was between forty and sixty percent of the adult population.{1} By contrast, in 2007, ten percent attended church at least weekly. About a quarter of those (about two million people) self-identify as evangelicals.{2} Although there has been large growth in so-called “new churches,” that growth hasn’t offset the loss across other denominations, especially the Church of England.

What about some other countries? In 2004, Gallup reported that “weekly attendance at religious services is below 10% in France and Germany, while in Belgium, the Netherlands, [and] Luxembourg . . . between 10% and 15% of citizens are regular churchgoers. . . . Only in Roman Catholic Ireland do a majority of residents (54%) still go to church weekly.”{3}

As we’ll see later, reduced numbers in church doesn’t mean all religious belief—even Christian—is lost.

The Golden Age of Faith

There is a story of the prominence and demise of religion in Europe that has become standard fare for understanding the history of Christianity in the modern world. The story goes that Europe was once a Christian civilization; that everyone was a Christian, and that the state churches ensured that society as a whole was Christian. This was the so-called “golden age of faith.” With the shift in thinking in the Enlightenment which put man at the center of knowledge, and which saw the rise of science, it became clear to some that religion was really just a form of superstition that gave pre-modern people an explanation of the world in which they lived and gave them hope.{4}

This story has come under a lot of fire in recent decades.{5} Although the churches had political and social power, there was no uniform religious belief across Europe. In fact, it’s been shown that there was a significant amount of paganism and folk magic mixed in with Christian beliefs.{6} Many priests had the barest notions of Christian theology; a lot of them couldn’t even read.{7} Sociologist Philip Gorski says that it’s more accurate to call it an Age of Magic or an Age of Ritual than an Age of Belief.{8}

On the other side of this debate are scholars such as Steve Bruce who say that, no matter the content or nature of religious belief in the Middle Ages, people were still religious even if not uniformly Christian; they believed in the supernatural and their religious beliefs colored their entire lives. “The English peasants may have often disappointed the guardians of Christian orthodoxy,” Bruce writes, “but they were indubitably religious.”{9}

So what changed? Was there a loss of Christianity or a loss of religion in general, or just some kind of shift? Historian Timothy Larson believes that what has been lost is Christendom.{10} The term Christendom is typically used to refer to the West when it was dominated by Christianity. The change wasn’t really from religion to irreligion but from the dominance of Christianity to its demise as a dominant force.

Religion has come back with significant force in recent decades even in such deeply secular countries as France, primarily because of the influx of Muslims.{11} Although the state Christian churches are faltering, some founded by immigrants are doing well, such as those founded by Afro-Caribbean immigrants in England. It seems that critics sounded the death knell on religion too soon.

European Distinctives

Although Christian belief is on the demise in general in Europe, the institutional church—the state church specifically—still has a valuable place in society.

In Europe’s past, the church was a major part of people’s lives. Everyone was baptized, married, and buried in the church. That tradition is still such a part of the social psyche that people fully expect that the church will be there for them even if they don’t attend. Sociologist Grace Davie describes the church in this respect as a public utility. “A public utility,” she writes, “is available to the population as a whole at the point of need and is funded through the tax system.”{12} Fewer people are being married in churches now, and far fewer are being baptized. However, there’s still a sense of need for the church at the time of death along with the expectation that it will be there for them.

Another term that characterizes religion in Europe is vicarious religion. Vicarious religion is “religion performed by an active minority but on behalf of a much larger number, who . . . understand [and] approve of what the minority is doing.” Church leaders are expected to believe certain things, perform religious rituals, and embody a high moral code. “English bishops,” Davie writes, “are rebuked . . . if they doubt in public; it is, after all, their ‘job’ to believe.” She reports an incident where a bishop was thought to have spoken derogatorily about the resurrection of Jesus. He was “widely pilloried” for that, she writes. Soon after his consecration as bishop, his church was struck by lightning. That was seen by some as a rebuke by God!{13}

Another indicator of the importance of the church in European life is the fact that, in some countries, people still pay church tax, even countries that are very secular. Germany is one example. People can opt out, but a surprisingly high number don’t, including some who are not religiously affiliated. Reasons include the possibility of needing the church sometime later in life, having a place to provide moral guidance for children, and the church’s role in positively influencing the moral fabric of society in general.{14}

From Doctrine to Spirituality

I described above two concepts that characterize religious life in parts of Europe: public utility and vicarious religion. There’s a third phrase sociologists use which points to the shift in emphasis from what one gets through the institutional church to personal spiritual experience. The phrase is “believing without belonging.”

Sociologist Peter Berger believes that, as America is less religious than it seems, Europe is less secular than it seems. “A lot goes on under the radar,” he writes.{15}

A phrase often heard there is heard more and more frequently in the States: “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” This could mean the person is into New Age thinking, or is interested in more conventional religion but doesn’t feel at home in a church or in organized religion, or just prefers to choose what to believe him- or herself. A term some use to characterize this way of thinking is “patchwork religion.”

One frequently finds a greater acceptance of religion in Europe when religion in general is the subject and not particular, creedal religions. Davie notes that “[generally speaking] if you ask European populations . . . do you believe in God, and you’re not terribly specific about the God in question, you’ll get about 70 percent saying yes, depending where you are. If you say, do you believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, you’ll get a much lower number. In other words, if you turn your question into a creedal statement, the percentages go down.” A “cerebral” kind of belief doesn’t hold much appeal to the young. The essence of religious experience isn’t so much what you learn as it is simply taking part. “It’s the fact that you’re lifted out of yourself that counts.”{16}

The loss of authority in the state church hasn’t resulted in the triumph of secular rationalism among young people, which is rather surprising. They experiment with religious beliefs. “The rise occurred right across Europe,” Davie notes, “but is most marked in those parts of Europe where the institutional churches are at their weakest.” This isn’t seen, however, “where the church is still strong and seen as a disciplinary force and is therefore rejected by young people.”{17}

Some Closing Thoughts

Allow me to make some observations about the subject of secularization and the church in Europe.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as we face a Western culture that is increasingly hostile to the Gospel. First, we routinely hear the charge from people that religious people are living in the past, that they need to catch up to modern times. Such people simply assume as obviously true the long-held theory that secularization necessarily follows from modernization. This theory is sharply disputed today. Europe’s history isn’t the history of the rest of the world. Modernization appears in different forms around the world, including some that have room for religious belief and practice. America is a prime example. It isn’t the backward exception to the rule, as haughty critics would have us believe. Some say it’s Europe that is the exception with its strong secularity.{18} In fact, I think a case can be made that the modern propensity to separate our spiritual side from our material one is artificial; it violates our nature. But that’s a subject for another time. What we can be sure of is that the condescending attitude of people who want Christians to catch up to modern times is without basis. There is no necessary connection between modernity and secularity.{19}

A second thing to keep in mind is that the church doesn’t require a Christian society around it in order to grow. Christianity didn’t have its beginnings in a Christian society, but it grew nonetheless. The wide-spread social acceptance of Christian beliefs and morality is not the power of God unto salvation. It is the word of the cross.

Third, religion per se will not disappear because we are made in God’s image and He has put eternity in our hearts (Eccl. 3:11). Christianity in particular will not die either, for the One who rose from the dead said even the gates of hell won’t prevail against it (a much more serious adversary than the new atheists!).

What should we do? The same things Christian have always been called to do: continue in sound, biblical teaching, and learn and practice consistent Christian living. It is the way we live that, for many people, makes our beliefs plausible in the first place. And proclaim the gospel. Despite any constraints society may put on us, the Word of God is not bound.


1. Steve Bruce, God is Dead: Secularization in the West (Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), 63-64.
2. Tearfund, “Churchgoing in the UK,” available on the Web at www.tearfund.org/webdocs/Website/News/Final%20churchgoing%20report.pdf.
3. Robert Manchin, “Religion in Europe: Trust Not Filling the Pews,” Sept. 21, 2004, www.gallup.com/poll/13117/religion-europe-trust-filling-pews.aspx.
4. Kevin M. Schulz, “Secularization: A Bibliographic Essay,” The Hedgehog Review, vol. 8, nos.1-2 (Spring/Summer 2006), 171. Online at www.virginia.edu/iasc/HHR_Archives/AfterSecularization/8.12RBibliography.pdf.
5. Sociologist Rodney Stark is one of the most prominent doubters of secularization theory. See his “Secularization, R.I.P. – rest in peace,” Sociology of Religion, Fall, 1999, available online at findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0SOR/is_3_60/ai_57533381/.
6. Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London, England: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971), 41; quoted in Philip S. Gorski, “Historicizing the Secularization Debate: Church, State, and Society in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ca. 1300 to 1700,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 65, No. 1 (Feb. 2000), 144.
7. Stark, “Secularization, R.I.P.”
8. Gorski, “Historicizing the Secularization Debate”: 146.
9. Steve Bruce, God is Dead: Secularization in the West (Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), 47.
10. Timothy Larsen, “Dechristendomization As an Alternative to Secularization: Theology, History, and Sociology in Conversation,” Pro Ecclesia, Vol. XV, No. 3.
11. See Jean-Paul Williame, “The Cultural Turn in the Sociology of Religion in France,” Sociology of Religion 65, no. 4 (Winter 2004): 373-389.
12. Grace Davie, “Is Europe an Exceptional Case?” The Hedgehog Review 8, nos.1-2 (Spring/Summer 2006): 27. Online at www.virginia.edu/iasc/HHR_Archives/AfterSecularization/8.12DDavie.pdf.
13. Grace Davie, “Is Europe an Exceptional Case?”: 24-26.
14. See Peter Berger, Grace Davie, and Effie Fokas, Religious America, Secular Europe? A Theme and Variations (Ashgate Publishing, 2008), 15.
15. Charles T. Mathewes, “An Interview with Peter Berger,” The Hedgehog Review, vol. 8, nos.1-2 (Spring/Summer 2006):155. Online at www.virginia.edu/iasc/HHR_Archives/AfterSecularization/8.12PBerger.pdf
16. “Believing Without Belonging: Just How Secular Is Europe?” A discussion with Grace Davie at the Pew Forum’s biannual Faith Angle Conference on religion, politics and public life, December 2005. pewforum.org/events/?EventID=97.
17. Ibid.
18. Berger, Davie, and Fokas, Religious America, Secular Europe?.
19. Sociologist Christian Smith edited a volume titled The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life (UC Press, 2003) in which the case was argued that secularization became so powerful here because of a concerted effort by people who wanted it, not because of some natural, teleological progression.

© 2010 Probe Ministries

Rick Wade served as a Probe research associate for 17 years. He holds a B.A. in communications (radio broadcasting) from Moody Bible Institute, an M.A. in Christian Thought (theology/philosophy of religion) from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a Master of Humanities (emphasis in philosophy) from the University of Dallas. Rick's interests focus on apologetics, Christianity and culture, and the changing currents in Western thought. Before joining Probe Ministries, Rick worked in the ship repair industry in Norfolk, VA. He can be reached at [email protected].

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