The rise of evangelical churches

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The rise of evangelical churches

Traditional churches in several European countries are losing members to evangelical churches at an increasing rate. This trend continues outside Europe, with the informal manner of speaking and flexibility in selecting pastors in evangelical churches as two key causes. However, other countries experience opposing trends. For instance, the German evangelical Church lost around 222,000 members in 2018.

Several countries are experiencing a rise in the role and power of evangelical churches. The term evangelicalism originally comes from the Greek word ‘gospel’, which means ‘good news’. This is a key belief in many evangelical churches. Evangelical churches do not belong to a single Protestant denomination, nor is there a universally accepted definition of what makes a church ‘evangelical’. However, there are several common characteristics, including a focus on spreading the gospel, or the good news, through mission work across the world. Moreover, many evangelical Christians believe that the Bible is the direct word of God[1] and that one must undergo a conversion experience in order to reach salvation.[2] [3]

European rise in evangelicalism
One European country in which the rise of evangelical churches has been clear is in the Netherlands. Dutch traditional churches, such as reformed churches, are losing members to evangelical churches at an increasing rate. People tend to switch churches for several reasons. For example, they may believe that evangelical churches are more welcoming, they may feel more loved and accepted in such a church, or they may prefer the worship style in these churches. Moreover, the traditional church may be less suitable for youngers generations anymore. The pace is slower, changes take a long time, and these churches have to be authentic as they stand in a certain tradition.[4]

In France, evangelical churches are also on the rise. This is especially true among young people and people of African descent. French evangelical gatherings are full of emotions and worship, and are often broadcasted to a larger audience through social media networks. Partly leading to its popularity is the idea that evangelicalism gives young people more confidence in themselves and meaning to their lives, as it focuses on the image of a good God, and on personal needs and choices based on faith in everyday life.[5]

A global phenomenon?
The trend continues outside Europe. In particular, evangelical churches in Latin American countries such as Brazil, Mexico and Bolivia are increasingly popular. According to historian Andrew Chesnut, four main factors have contributed to this success, both inside and outside Europe.

First, Chesnut points to the fact that evangelical churches have adopted a more informal and direct manner of speaking about the Bible. Together with the practice of singing praise songs, this new manner of presenting religion is more consistent with Latin American culture. Second, Chesnut states that evangelical churches have managed to build support networks which allow the church to intervene in problems faced by local communities, such as alcoholism, criminality, and addiction.
Third, Chesnut suggests that the fact that evangelical churches have more flexible criteria when it comes to selecting and training pastors has also helped to facilitate their rise. Whereas in traditional churches, pastors cannot be married and must have a significant level of education, these same criteria are not required for pastors in evangelical churches. Therefore, a wider variety of people can become senior figures in the church. In particular, poorer levels of society can now be reached.
Finally, Chesnut argues that many middle- and upper-class people have seen their political views echoed in evangelical churches. This can be seen clearly with regards to ideas on gender ideologies, abortion laws, and how sexual education should be treated as a subject in schools.[6]

As their reach into society increases, evangelical churches are gaining power in politics. In the view of Chesnut, evangelicals in Latin American countries have played an important role in the rise and fall of political leaders, such as in Bolivia and Brazil. For Chesnut, this may represent a danger for religious freedom. When religious leaders take power, they may discriminate against other religious groups.[7]

Exceptions to the rule
However, not all countries experience similar developments. In fact, the German evangelical Church lost around 222,000 members in 2018.[8] Several reasons may contribute to this. For example, evangelical churches depend for a great part on volunteers. Historically in Europe, much of the unpaid work in churches has been done by nuns and priests. As a result, in some European cultures, Christians may feel that they have fulfilled their duties by attending mass or church services. They may not want to voluntarily spend many hours a week on activism, evangelism and other tasks.

Moreover, from a practical viewpoint, churchgoers may simply not want to travel to an evangelical church. As the number of evangelical churches is quite small in Europe, people may not live in the neighborhood of a church. Another reason may be the fact that bands, instruments, audio, visuals and buildings are expensive. When an evangelical church is not that large, the overhead costs may be too high to maintain. Finally, the highly expressive style of worship used in evangelical churches requires intimacy and trust. Multiple European countries, such as Bulgaria, Sweden and Finland, have a culture of low trust or do not like sharing personal issues. Therefore, growth of evangelical churches in these countries is often made up from communities with an immigrant background.[9]

The rise of evangelical churches in different parts of the world contradicts the wider trend of societies becoming less religious. Whereas many traditional churches in Europe are struggling with declining numbers of members, evangelical churches are quickly increasing the size of their communities. This is partly due to the fact that evangelical churches are able to reach all members of society. Helped by support networks and flexibility in pastor selection, evangelical churches can reach poorer levels of the community, whereas they also connect with middle- and upper-class faithful by echoing their political views. However, it must be stressed that this trend varies from country to country.

Anne Clerx

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[1] What does the term ‘evangelical’ really mean? Here are 10 things to know
[3] Evangelicals – Evangelicals V. Mainline Protestants | The Jesus Factor | FRONTLINE
[4] De aantrekkingskracht van de kerk van de beleving
[5] Evangélisme, un sursaut chrétien en banlieue
[6] Cómo las iglesias evangélicas han logrado ganar tanto peso en la política de América Latina
[7] Cómo las iglesias evangélicas han logrado ganar tanto peso en la política de América Latina
[8] Die Nachrichten
[9] Why Evangelical Churches Struggle in Europe