Magazine article International Bulletin of Mission Research

The Recent Growth of Pentecostalism in Belgium

Magazine article International Bulletin of Mission Research

The Recent Growth of Pentecostalism in Belgium

Article excerpt

Sociologists of religion and casual observers alike have noted the steady decline of institutional religion in continental Europe. Belgium has been no exception to this trend, and while the schools, hospitals, labor unions, and political parties that were linked to the Roman Catholic Church insulated the devout for a time, secularism seems to have ultimately won out. (1) Attendance at Mass plummeted in the 1970s, and many Catholics left the church, devoting more of their energy to economic pursuits than to God and church. (2) Although not as secularized as the British, Bulgarians, Czechs, or Swedes, Belgians were already among the more secularized Europeans studied by Loek Halman and the European Values Study group in 1990. (3)

It is a mistake to assume, however, that this loss of power of institutional Catholicism means that Belgian Christianity has retreated on all fronts. While Belgium may be considered to be "post-Catholic" in its overall religious orientation, younger Protestant movements have demonstrated strong growth in the last decades of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. If you met a committed churchgoing Belgian in the 1960s, most likely that person would have been Roman Catholic. Today, that person is very likely Pentecostal and of foreign descent.

The number of Protestant churches has grown significantly over the last several decades, almost doubling since 1980. (4) In addition, some of the largest Protestant churches in Belgium today were started after 1980. Church membership statistics are more difficult to establish. In 1980, on the basis of school registration statistics and church membership rolls from 190 churches, historian Emile Braekman estimated the number of Protestants in Belgium to be between 90,000 and 100,000. By 2010, the number of Protestants in Belgium was estimated at 150,000, with the largest population percentage (6%) in Brussels. (5)

Although membership statistics for all the churches are not available for 2012, it can be estimated that between 1980 and 2012 Protestants have grown from a little less than 1 percent of the Belgian population to closer to 2 percent, with the highest percentages in Brussels. This is surprising and unexpected growth, however it is assessed. In contrast, the total Belgian population has shown only slight growth over the same period, from 9.9 million in 1980 to 10.4 million in 2012.

Foreign Influences

Belgian Protestantism has experienced steady growth from 1830, the date of Belgian independence. This growth has been in several major waves and has almost always been dependent on a missionary force coming from outside of Belgium: the Baptists in Belgium originated as part of a French work, the Reformed Church originated with an expatriate Dutch population left in Belgium after its independence, the work of the Salvation Army was sponsored from Britain, and the Belgian Gospel Mission was financed and staffed by English and American Christians. With several historically Protestant countries in close proximity (Holland, Britain, Switzerland), and then with the American and British presence in Belgium's religious situation after the two World Wars, the influence of foreigners has been a consistent theme in the growth and development of Protestantism in Belgium. In 2002 John Doherty surveyed twenty-two evangelical church planters, only nine (41 percent) of whom were Belgians. (6)

The presence of foreigners as part of Belgian Protestantism leads to the issue of language. When Belgium gained its independence, there were three language groups within its borders:

Table 2. Belgian Protestant Churches, 2012,
Languages Used in Worship

583 national-language Protestant churches
     Dutch (190), French (383), German (10)
201 nonnational-language Protestant churches
     Arab (3), Armenian (5), Congolese (6), English (93),
     Ghanaian (4), Italian (13), Korean (4), Portuguese (29),
     Romanian (5), Russian (6), Rwandan (5), Spanish (12),
     Turkish (4), other (12)
784 total Protestant churches (a)

Source: Yearbook of the Administrative Council of Protestant and
Evangelical Religion in Belgium, http://www. … 
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