The Magazine

Holland's Post-Secular Future

Christianity is dead. Long live Christianity!

Jan 1, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 16 • By JOSHUA LIVESTRO
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There's statistical evidence to back up the "new orthodoxy" hypothesis. First of all, there's the undeniable fact of the continued decline and fall of the old liberal religious order. Worst hit are the mainstream Protestant churches, whose membership declined from 23 percent of the population in the late 1950s to 6 percent today. According to government estimates, by 2020 this figure will have dwindled to a mere 2 percent. The decline of liberal Protestantism has been matched by that of liberal Catholicism. The once-powerful Catholic Eighth of May group--a liberation theology movement born out of a mass meeting on May 8, 1985, to protest against Pope John Paul II's visit to the Netherlands--was disbanded in November 2003 because of lack of interest among its rapidly declining membership. More broadly, aging Catholic congregations mean that Roman Catholicism, too, will likely face another decade or so of declining membership. From 42 percent of the population in 1958 and 17 percent today, membership could fall to as low as 10 percent before leveling off around 2020.

In spite of this decline of the old religious establishment, however, the century-long wave of secularization seems to have crested, and may even have begun to recede. The Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) finds that the number of self-described Christians stopped declining as early as the beginning of the 1990s. Among the under-20s, the number has started to increase in recent years. If the CBS figures are to be believed, in 2005 a small majority of the Dutch population (52 percent) still called itself Christian. The figures are disputed, however, by another major government research body, the Social and Cultural Planning Agency (SCP). The SCP uses a stricter definition of religiosity, allowing only those who not only describe themselves as Christians but also belong to a particular church to be counted as "real" Christians. The others, the so-called "fringe Christians," are not attached to a particular church and are excluded from the official head count. Even by the SCP's strict standards, Christians still form a 40 percent plurality among the wider population. Much like the CBS statistic, the SCP's 40 percent figure hasn't changed since the early 1990s.

From both sets of figures, it seems clear that something of a high-water mark for secularization in Holland was set in the last decade. What is less clear is what is happening now and what happens next. If 40-50 percent of the population are Christian, yet only half of these are in traditional churches, Protestant or Catholic, what is going on with religion in Holland?

The reason the Christian population of Holland has stopped shrinking and is likely to avoid further decline is a phenomenon that until now has been largely overlooked by commentators on Dutch politics and society: Christian immigration. Analysts usually focus on the one million Muslim immigrants and their offspring who have made the Netherlands their home since the early 1950s. But in the past decade, Muslim immigration has been overtaken by a larger stream of immigrants, namely Christians from Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe. An SCP estimate puts the number of Christian immigrants in Holland at around 700,000-- and rising fast. Recent immigration reports suggest that for every new Muslim moving to Holland, there are at least two new Christian immigrants.

They meet in churches like the one led by Rev. Stanley Hofwijks. Shortly after arriving from Suriname in the mid-1970s, Hofwijks became the pastor of a small Amsterdam-based charismatic Christian community of just under 40 members. The congregation met in a room in a local Dutch Reformed Church, which at the time still counted around a thousand members. They are long gone. The church building now belongs to Hofwijks's evangelical church, Maranatha Ministries, which numbers some 1,800 members. Hofwijks anticipates his congregation will eventually outgrow the building. He is already looking at buying and converting an old warehouse that would hold around 2,000.