The traveller strolled along the road looking for some sign of life. Finally he met a casually dressed man coming in the other direction. ‘Excuse me, sir,’ said the traveller, ‘could you tell me which country this is?’
‘Belgium’, replied the man, looking rather bemused, perhaps wondering why the question should be asked at all. ‘Ah, then that means I have crossed the border’, exclaimed the traveller. ‘What sort of country is Belgium?’
‘Well, if you are travelling around for a while there is plenty to see. There are charming towns, gorgeous scenery, art galleries, museums, war cemeteries, and then there is our coastline. Oh, and you may want to visit various church buildings. Most tourists do. But no one else bothers’. The conversation continued at some length before the two men went their separate ways.
This fictional exchange reflects a basic truth. Read any tourist brochure about Belgium and you get an idyllic view of a charming country with church buildings visited only by tourists.
All of this betrays the fact that Belgium is yet another of those secularised western countries, bathed in material wealth yet poor in its understanding of spiritual truths. Roman Catholicism accounts officially for 90% of the 10 million population, and fewer than 1% have any kind of Protestant connection. But for most Belgians, organised religion is simply not relevant to everyday life.
Mr and Mrs Average will go to mass perhaps once or twice a year on special occasions, but that is as far as it goes. This would be true for the Dutch-speaking Flemings of the north and the French-speaking Walloons of the south.
Yet even this does not give the full picture. The Roman Catholic Church in Belgium may be in crisis (disillusionment, dwindling attendances, shortage of candidates for the priesthood), but she retains a stubborn ‘grip’ on society.
In the eyes of many, being Belgian means being Roman Catholic. Non-Catholics are ‘outsiders’ and most other religious groups are viewed as sects. Indeed, a few years ago, there were moves from the previous (Catholic dominated) government to establish an official list of sects, and the names of many Evangelical churches and agencies appeared on the provisional list.
However, since the change of government in 1999 to a liberal-socialist-green coalition, the sect issue has taken a back seat. Nonetheless, for many Belgians, a break with the Roman Church means a break with the family and that is a high price to pay.
The relative strength of family ties in Belgium is a good thing for the moral fabric of society, but in a Romanist land it creates a social barrier against which the Evangelical church has to struggle. Large parts of the country are untouched by the gospel and much work remains to be done.
It must be said that the biblical gospel, of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, has never really enjoyed lasting success in Belgium. A form of Christianity came to this region in the early centuries of the Roman Empire. This appearance of religion gradually deteriorated into Romish superstition during the Middle Ages.
Then, in the sixteenth century, Belgium was briefly impacted by the teachings of the Reformation. This is reflected, for example, in the content of the Belgic Confession of 1561.
This document, largely the work of a preacher called Guido de Brès, was designed to be a clear and comprehensive statement in defence of the Reformed Faith, at the time of the Spanish Inquisition in the Low Countries. However, King Philip II of Spain (Belgium was under Spanish rule at that time) was determined to root out all Protestant factions under his jurisdiction.
Thousands of believers paid for their faith with their lives, including the valiant de Brès who was martyred in 1567. Most true believers who survived this onslaught fled north to what is now the Netherlands. Surprising as it may seem, those events of long ago still account for the spiritual and religious geography of this region. The Netherlands is mainly Protestant, whilst Belgium is Roman Catholic.
During the twentieth century, several Evangelical groups tried their hand at working in Belgium. Very few of them enjoyed much lasting success, but there has been some numerical growth.
The largest of these groups is the Belgian Evangelical Mission (BEM), founded in 1919 by American missionaries Ralph and Edith Norton. The BEM is a member of the Evangelical Alliance and has enjoyed a measure of advancement in the sense that the number of congregations has increased.
However, serious weaknesses are in evidence amongst many believers. Many churches cannot — or will not — support a full-time pastor. This inevitably impairs the quality of teaching, and churches tend to remain poorly taught and susceptible to all kinds of false teaching.
Many pastors and Evangelical leaders have had very little opportunity for serious theological training, and men with preaching gifts have seldom had good models of expository preaching to follow.
Doctrines of grace
The doctrines of grace, so cherished by Calvinistic Christians, are largely unknown in Belgium. This is particularly sad because there is sufficient Reformed literature available (originals and translations) in both Dutch and French, the two major languages of Belgium.
Additionally, the ‘George Whitefield Stichting [Foundation]’ has done much to promote Puritan literature in Dutch, which is the mother-tongue of two-thirds of Belgians (but, beware — some Belgians refer to the Dutch as ‘Flemish’!).
All these things taken together give some idea of the current state of evangelicalism in Belgium. It is advancing slowly and there are probably about 40,000 genuine believers in Belgium (about 0.4 % of the population). But plenty of room remains for further advancement.
If our fictional traveller ever returns to Belgium, we hope and pray that he will find a nation brimming with true spiritual life! May the gospel of our Lord’s free and sovereign grace prosper all over the land. Do please remember us in your prayers.