Henri Nouwen wrote with melancholy about return visits to his boyhood home in the Netherlands, where in one generation vibrant Catholicism had faded into a quaint ritual. A few months before his death, he spoke to a paltry crowd of 36 students at the seminary he had attended, once bustling with hundreds of eager candidates for priesthood.
Nouwen's own devout family had rejoiced in his choice of vocation, though many in the family later lost interest. He was called on to christen a niece or nephew, yet mostly as a cultural relic. "I feel like an entertainer who is far from entertaining," he said after one such event.
On a recent visit to the Low Countries, I encountered many reminders of the decline in European faith. Dutch Christians told me that a century ago, 98 percent of Dutch people attended church regularly; within two generations the percentage fell into the low teens. Today it's under 10 percent. Almost half the church buildings in Holland have been destroyed or converted into restaurants, art galleries, or condominiums.
I attended a vespers service in a Belgian church renowned for its stained glass. Ten of us sat under the high Gothic arches, my wife and I the only ones younger than 70. Outside, far more tourists were complaining about the sign announcing the church's closure to tourists during the service. For a majority of Europeans, the church seems wholly irrelevant.
A German correspondent wrote me about Europeans' reaction to the World Trade Center attacks. American leaders called a National Day of Prayer, and ordinary citizens temporarily flooded churches and purchased Bibles in record numbers. Germans had no comparable response. Instead, on talk shows and editorial pages, they turned introspective: Muslim fanatics are willing to die for their God; we no longer even believe in God. What do we have as an alternative?
I sensed some of the same existential anxiety in the Netherlands, still reeling from the assassination of a popular politician in May. Right wing and openly gay (not an oxymoron in the Netherlands), Pim Fortuyn voiced alarmist concerns that many Europeans feel about immigration. Muslims have a more pronounced and visible presence in Western Europe than in the United States; xenophobic movements in Germany, Spain, and France have fed on the resulting anxieties.
My hosts in the Netherlands look to the United States as a model of a modern nation that maintains a vital religious faith. Whenever I visit Europe, though, and see the mostly hollow shells of the church, an institution that dominated the continent for 1,500 years, I wonder if the same pattern will play out in my homeland. Will the decline of faith that A. N. Wilson, himself one of its symbols, documented in the book God's Funeral occur in the United States?
Wilson writes, "God's funeral was not, as many in the 19th century might have thought, the end of a phase of human intellectual history. It was the withdrawal of a great Love object." Wilson admits a deep loss in at least two areas. For the first time in history, many people no longer feel the need to pray or worship. Also, uniquely, many see no world of value outside themselves, no objective transcendent truth. Human beings alone must define their values and meaning—and if the previous century offers any indication of the result, we face a bleak future indeed.
But I have some hope that the United States will not go the way of Western Europe. In the first place, we have strong seminaries and Christian colleges that engage secularism. Perhaps more important, the American church has long been a mission-sending church. (Sometimes I wonder if God continues to bless our nation, despite its decadence, for this reason alone.)
American Christians trained in Enlightenment reductionism can learn about spiritual warfare firsthand on mission trips to South America. We can learn about suffering from the church in China, about passionate evangelism from Africa, and about intercessory prayer from Korea. Just as nothing threatens my faith like a visit to the agnostic portions of Europe, nothing invigorates my faith more than a visit to churches in non-Western countries.
Perhaps we have not heard the last from the church in Europe either. I met with Paul Nouwen, Henri's younger brother. Paul told of sitting at Henri's funeral, after his unexpected death at 64 in 1996, and hearing people from many countries speak of Henri's influence.
"I realized that, compared to Henri, I have nothing," he said. "And as I sat there listening, the difference became clear—Henri had God. That made all the difference." In a humble spirit, Paul Nouwen proceeded to tell of the changes he was making to better prepare for his own death and to restore a relationship with the God whom his brother knew so well. As his brother testified, Henri, who had lived as a missionary in North and South America, ended up as a missionary back in his heartsick homeland.
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Previous Yancey columns for Christianity Today include:
SheepishFeeling autonomous and proud? Then ponder the lives of sheep. (July 2, 2002)
Servant in ChiefJimmy Carter's journey from the White House to building houses.(May 28, 2002)
Why Do They Hate Us?How to turn the Baywatch syndrome into the Jesus syndrome. (March 27, 2002)
Honest Church MarketingWe enhance our 'image' by offering the world a realistic picture of faith. (October 24, 2001)
Compassion ConfusionWe should serve the needy even when it has bad political consequences. (August 28, 2001)
Fixing Our Weakest LinkEvangelicals should be more "needful of the minds of others." (July 13, 2001)
Replenishing the Inner PastorChurches should take greater interest in their shepherds' spiritual health. (May 14, 2001)
Beyond Flesh and BloodI used to disdain biblical talk of "invisible spirits." No more. (Mar. 27, 2001)
God at LargeA look around the globe reveals a God as big as we want him to be. (Jan. 31, 2001)
Humility's Many FacesEveryone I've looked up to has shared one trait. (Dec. 4, 2000)
Getting a LifeThe most fully alive persons are those who give their lives away. (Oct. 16, 2000)
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