The Largest Mission Field in Europe Are People Who Call Themselves Christians

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The largest mission field in Western Europe isn’t self-identifying atheists or Muslim immigrants; it’s people who call themselves Christians but exhibit few, if any, signs of faith.

Non-practicing Christians, which a Pew Research Center report defines as those who identify with Christianity but rarely or never attend church services, make up the biggest segment of the region’s population.

According to the report, 46 percent of Western Europeans are non-practicing Christians, 18 percent are regular church attendees, 24 percent are religiously unaffiliated, and 5 percent follow other faiths.

Despite their increasing secularism, Europeans still tend to identify with religious labels—if not their more orthodox beliefs.

The region’s non-practicing Christians outnumber church-attending believers in every Western European country except Italy, Pew reports. They rarely or never attend worship services, generally don’t believe in God as described in the Bible (67%), and don’t hold to historic positions on social issues: 85% favor legal abortion (compared to 52% of church-attending Christians) and 80% favor same-sex marriage (compared to 58% of church attendees).

Over the course of a single generation, the number of Western Europeans without a Christian background has skyrocketed, said Evert Van de Poll, professor of religious studies and missiology at the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Leuven, Belgium. In his home country of the Netherlands, the number of unaffiliated Dutch (48%) has tripled since he was a boy. At the same time, the “Christian” label has increasingly become more a cultural signifier than a statement of faith and practice.

With the Christian landscape evolving (or, by many measures, devolving) so rapidly in the region, defining “non-practicing,” or “nominal,” Christianity becomes tricky.

“The ‘nominal’ Christian does not exist,” said Van de Poll. “There are many types of nominality depending on the parameter you use.”

Some have had negative experiences with the church, Van de Poll said. Others haven’t but were raised to call themselves “Christians” with little awareness of what that means.

“We have to listen to people and find out where the bridges are and where the barriers are,” Van de Poll said. “There is not one clear-cut approach because there is not one typical nominal Christian.”

Van de Poll and other theologians, social scientists, and practitioners from around the world gathered in Rome in March to issue the Lausanne Movement’s Statement on Nominal Christianity, calling for “profound reflection and determined action to seek and save the missing millions.”

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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Griffin Paul Jackson