If you blink, you’ll miss it!’ At least that may be the impression of many who pass through Belgium on their way to somewhere more exciting. However, this little country no bigger than Wales has one of the highest population densities in Europe, with over ten million inhabitants.
Yet the divisions among these people are so deep-rooted that most sections of society are affected, even in the struggling churches where one could hope for something better.
For many, Belgium is a ‘Christian’ land, but even the strong Roman Catholic denomination is losing ground at an alarming rate. Its 15% of regular churchgoers is shrinking year by year. For over twenty years, vocations to the priesthood have been so low that many Roman Catholic seminaries have been sold off.
While the statistics suggest that Protestants account for about 0.75% of Belgium’s population, Evangelicals are less than half of this number. They are, therefore, a very small minority, often thought of as belonging to ‘cults’ and dismissed by most as people of no consequence.
Those Evangelical churches which have been planted struggle to maintain their foothold, for a number of reasons: the pressures of life in a highly competitive society;
the high cost of property, especially in the cities; small numbers; difficulties relating to the training of pastors; and so on.
Nevertheless, some are ‘getting on with the job’ of church planting. The Belgian Evangelical Mission, for example, has about 120 workers spread around the country. Various other mission groups have put workers into Belgium, many of whom have later moved to other fields because of the hardness of the task.
And it is this ‘hardness’ which must be taken into account by anyone thinking of serving the Lord in Belgium. My wife and I left Belgium over twenty years ago (we were working with Grace Baptist Mission) but even then a practical atheism had begun to make its mark on society.
For example, in strict parallel with the Roman Catholic ‘first communion’ ceremony for young teenagers, another event was taking place in the town theatre. Dressed up in ‘Sunday clothes’, young people were singing patriotic songs, listening to talks about good citizenship and making their vows – not to God, but to the state! These were second or third generation children of atheist parents (we knew some personally), and today we are another generation down that road.
Telling people in Belgium about God, and his mercy towards sinners, becomes extremely difficult when the very concept of God has been nearly eradicated from their consciousness. This is being done at the same time as children of the few remaining Roman Catholics, and the even fewer Protestants, are in their weekly RE classes.
Since 1963 in Belgium, an Act of Parliament has meant that the ‘non-religious option’ must be offered in all state schools, alongside multi-faith teaching for those who still want it. No wonder Belgian children and young people are so difficult to reach with the gospel!
Without wanting to be judgmental, most of the Evangelical groups working in Belgium are probably not reformed in their theology. Thus when large ‘evangelistic campaigns’ are organised, featuring ‘big-name speakers’, most Evangelical churches are happy to join in.
In our fellowship in Mons (between 1969 and 1981) we regularly came across people who had been to such gatherings, but few remained with us when it became clear that our meetings were not quite as ‘showy’. As far as we can tell, few of those who were affected by such campaigns continued to attend churches for long.
Of course, there are growing churches; those with a Pentecostal and Charismatic flavour. All the larger sects are also in evidence, although they have not had quite so much ‘success’ in Belgium as in other places.
Recent widely publicised events have made many people wary about getting too involved with such groups. This has had a knock-on effect as far as true Evangelicals are concerned, creating another obstacle to outreach. Perhaps the attraction of some towards more extreme churches shows that there is, despite everything, a desire to find some sort of ‘truth’ that will explain the big questions of life.
Next time you hear a report from the European Union in Brussels or are driving through Belgium towards your holiday cottage, don’t switch off mentally. Switch on spiritually! Pray for those who labour for the gospel’s sake in this small country very rich in worldly terms but desperately poor in the things of heaven.
Perhaps the Lord will call you to join the spiritual battle for the soul of Belgium?