I’m an American but I live in Brussels, Belgium. Though these two nations are considered part of the ‘western world’, they are quite worlds apart. Now, with Brussels being the capital of the EU and the European headquarters of quite a few businesses, some of them American, there is more than just Belgian life going on here. I can find plenty of Americans around. Yet it is still different. And there must be hundreds, if not thousands, of differing cultures and languages packed into one city. So not unlike New York City or London.
From a religious-spiritual context, one of the main differences between much of western Europe and America is that western Europe is currently considered post-Christian. America is not.
What is post-Christian?
Well, I’m sure there are varying ideas floating around, but it has basically become an adjective to describe how western Europe has moved beyond their more traditional roots of Christianity. We are in a time of post, or after, Christianity. In its place, they have now embraced one of two ideas:
1) A more modern, enlightened atheistic or agnostic mindset that rejects a lot of what cannot be empirically founded. God and religion are not always compatible to the rational thinker and we have science to now explain what we once thought was God. I would say those in there 40’s and 50’s, maybe 60’s, are at this place.
2) A more post-modern, pluralistic mindset that does not really embrace anything spiritually, or could embrace anything and everything. Truth is objective to the former group mentioned, but to them, religious truth is not always objectively attainable. To this more post-modern group, truth is pretty relative to context. I would say these people are in there teen’s, 20’s and 30’s.
I am not one of those guys that are then going to pronounce judgment because of these two groups. I’m simply stating some things I have observed and what many others would point to without my observations. It’s simply the reality of where western Europe is.
Matter of fact, I have heard a number that Belgium has only 3% professing evangelicals. I don’t know if this is true, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is. I believe the international population would push that number higher, since most people in churches are from the international scene, identifying themselves as evangelicals.
Belgium is inherently Roman Catholic, whatever that might mean. But for most, at least the younger generation, if not also the older, this is something they ‘did’ when they were younger. They were baptised as an infant, had first communion, and then around 15 or 16 years of age, they left the church. So it’s more an initiatory practise of the culture, bearing not much weight in individual or community life.
Again, I am simply stating what I observe, and what would probably be supported by the statistics.
One always hears that France is the hardest of places for the gospel. My wife lived in Paris for one a half years and she can testify to the difficulties. I know of another man who leads a smaller church and they were excited when they started meeting every other week as a church. I like smallness, so I don’t claim such is a negative. But it was quite interesting to hear of their situation, one that seems to be the norm in France.
With Belgium, some might claim that it is the second hardest nation of western Europe.
This is where we are at in western Europe. And it was like this long before I arrived in June 2008. And it might just stay this way a little while longer. This is the sense I get. And its possible things could get a little bit more difficult. Not from a persecution standpoint, but just from a hard and disinterested standpoint.
This is the fruit and evidence of a post-Christian society. We have moved into a generation in western Europe where you might actually find someone who has never heard of Jesus. Now, that is more unlikely in Belgium simply because of the Roman Catholic ties. But it still is identified as post-Christian.
On the other hand, my mother country of America is not post-Christian. Yes, we can point to declining numbers in certain areas. Goodness knows enough people are proclaiming the declining statistics and how America is forfeiting its religious roots (a message I am not particularly fond of). But by no means is America post-Christian. Come live in western Europe for a significant period. Trust me, things are quite different.
Now, granted, what goes on in America that identifies itself with Christ is not always of Christ. There are a lot of things that take place because of extreme fundamentalism or the religious right or conservative parties that identify themselves as taking up God’s agenda. But, I think it fair to assess that, by no means, does God reciprocate every such claim. Some people in these groups are standing for the right-living of the kingdom; some are standing for moralism. I believe there is a difference.
But there is still a thriving sector of the church in America. This part of the church is trying to figure out how to be Christ in the culture of the U.S. The church is not always faithful at it. Oh, we are not always faithful at it. Still, I believe there is a major part of the church that really wants to walk out the heart of God and reach American people.
Still, I wouldn’t put it past America to head towards a post-Christian society. I am not predicting, per se. But I am saying it’s possible, even more likely than not. What I am more convinced of is that the religious right and extreme fundamentalism who embrace moralism rather than Jesus and His kingdom will fade more and more.
I also believe post-modern thinking and pluralism will become more and more prevalent. Well, the fruit of this is readily available today. Is it a great threat, or the greatest threat? I am not sure. I think not. I think these are some of the greater threats:
1) An immature, unhealthy church
2) Building the church unlike Jesus had in mind
3) Unwillingness to consider change and adapt to reaching an ever-changing society-culture
But I have noted all of these things to head towards my greater point: bringing hope to a post-Christian culture, or a culture that might just be headed towards a post-Christian mindset.
The four seasons of the year are a prophetic image of God’s work. All things go through seasons – from our work, to our marriage, to our churches, to cultures, to societies, to individuals, to just about everything great and small, even nature. It’s part and parcel to life.
There are heightened periods of blessing and heightened periods of difficulty across the board. It’s not to make an excuse for evil or sin or any such thing. It’s simply to recognise this is true in life. And the natural creation around us reminds us of this very thing. Whereas spring brings about new life and growth, summer bringing maturity to the creation, we then have the autumn time where things begin to fade and winter brings a kind of complete death. Winter sees hibernation, but spring will awaken the sleeping bear.
With regards to the whole use of nature as prophetic imagery of God’s workings, there is a specific image that has come in my heart these past few days. Let me flesh it out a little.
Manure, or cow poop, in and of itself, is not that interesting. It is both displeasing to the nose and eye. And the thought of stepping into it is somewhat revolting.
But, manure can actually serve a very good purpose in growing healthy greenery. If you take manure and spread it across the earthen soil where you are looking to grow plants, it can act as a wonderful fertilizer. Spread it across the soil and, after a bit of time, some necessary nutrients will have soaked into the ground providing a healthy environment for the plants to come through the soil and grow.
That initial period of waiting is a little long, but when it’s the right time, the plants will poke their way through (or breakthrough) the soil and head towards the oxygen and sunlight. This is a major way one gets healthy plant life.
Here is how I see this relating in to a post-Christian society like Belgium. We are in a season of manure and manure alone. We look around and there seems no growth, no fruit, no harvest if you will. It’s just smelly and stinky cow poo. Maybe a little straw here and there, but straw is already hard and cracked, looking dead itself.
There really is nothing much going on in Belgium, or the larger part of western Europe. Oh, there is something going on. God is at work, He has people who are interested in what He is interested in. We all know the words God spoke to Elijah when Elijah said no one is around (2 Kings 19:14-18). There were 7,000. Jesus mainly started with 12, with one coming out as a betrayer in the end.
So I am not agonising that no one is in Belgium or other parts of Europe. But, what I am recognising is that, as a whole, there is a lot of manure. One might mainly see poo and only poo.
But I believe this is a season of preparation and awaiting for something better to come from the manure. And God will actually use the manure to bring forth new life and new fruit. Even when the life and fruit begin to grow, it will take time to get to any sense of a harvest. But we will rejoice at the fact that new life has birthed forth, even out of manure. And we will find ourselves laughing over the reality that God used manure to bring forth new life. It’s that Joseph kind of thing (Genesis 50:20), working all things together for good (Romans 8:28).
I’m reminded of the time in history where this happened in the greatest sense. Most will refer to the intertestamental period, the time between the words of Malachi and the birth of Christ, as a time when God was silent, He didn’t speak. I don’t like to go that far, claiming that God never spoke or was never active. But, the few centuries leading up to the time of the coming of the Messiah were times of distress, loss of hope, loss of a strong prophetic sense of God’s voice, loss of a lot of things.
But, lo and behold, ‘when the fulness of time had come’ (Galatians 4:4), the Son of God was birthed. He came forth out of the manure and initiated the good news of the kingdom of God breaking forth with new life for all of humanity. And we have been eating of that fruit ever since. And that true fruit is truly sweet to the taste buds.
This is what I believe is happening amongst a nation like Belgium. These words and image are relevant to what a nation and culture goes through during a post-Christian season. We are in the midst of a cycle, but this cycle will not end here. We can see this as preparation for good soil, preparation for the breaking up of fallow ground (Hosea 10:12).
And these words can be a comfort to America if and when it heads towards actually becoming post-Christian. I am not saying this generation should necessarily give up, though there was a time when God told Jeremiah that the best thing for His people would be to simply go into captivity in Babylon (Jeremiah 29:5-7). But, even out of that, we find the words of promise that almost every Christian knows:
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. (vs11)
God is committed to bringing new life and new fruit, even harvest, out of the manure of our situations and societies. It calls for patience, it calls for faithfulness, it calls for perseverance, it calls for laying aside our own agendas and time frames. But we can find hope from the manure. For when manure is being laid, we know that God is only preparing us for the good that will come forth at the ‘fulness of time’.
Let us not lose hope. Let us not get overly anxious. Let us rest and be led by Him even in times of manure.