As a member of a large, mission-minded church, I often pray for others around the world. I give to support the spread of the Gospel beyond the familiar realm of Western culture where I pass eight church buildings to get to the one where I worship. I’ve written about missionaries and other cultures, and persecution present and future. Though I pray and give and frequently send my imagination on adventures, I don’t get out of my comfort zone too much.
But I appreciate others who do. A few years ago, my church helped start the Op Weg church in Gent, Belgium. My pastor and others from our congregation have gone to assist the small body of believers. Recently two men from Gent came before our congregation on a Sunday night to tell us about the little church.
Geert, the older of the two gentlemen, started the church in his garage. People don’t go to church in Belgium, he told us, so the church must go to the people. They made the move to a building, but it will soon be torn down. Geert doesn’t know where the church will go then. But the building is not the church, and he is not worried.
Johan was raised Catholic, like most who still affiliate themselves with the church. And like most, his family was non-practicing. A young man, Johan became a believer and was baptized in 2007. His family and Geert’s family lead the small group of Op Weg.
The men explained how the religious climate in Europe is quite different for evangelicals. The search for the truth of the Gospel came out of the Roman Catholic Church. But today it seems no one is searching anymore. Churches are rare. Most church buildings are now used for other purposes. The oldest Catholic cathedrals in Gent are now nothing more than museums.
In contrast to Belgium’s lack of interest in matters of the church, the Roman Catholic presence is supported by taxes. State schools offer religious training as a matter of choice—Catholic, Protestant, Judaism, and Islam are among the electives. Another option: Humanism. Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Constitution, and schools promote that freedom. But teachers cannot lean toward one choice or the other. Johan reported his wife, a teacher, must hide the cross she wears around her neck.
Discretion is called for in all matters of religion. Sharing one’s faith is not illegal, but it must be done in private, and it's typically met with polite ridicule. The faithful are mocked, assumed to be uneducated or brainwashed. The atmosphere into which evangelism edges is dark. The ground where the seed must be planted is hard. My pastor commented that sharing the Gospel in Belgium is like plowing in concrete.
He asked Geert and Johan what most surprised them about the American church. Johan replied it was the fact that the church is still flourishing. That we have such liberty. That we are so bold. He commented on the variety of people who attend church. We are diverse.
Geert said he had heard radical stories about the Western church. He told us Europeans have one view of Americans, but it is not so. He was surprised by the friendliness of the church. As Johan had done, Geert noted our boldness. He told us he could feel the difference.
The ground these men plow must not give way too much at all. It must be a dark, hard environment they endure that leads them to call us bold. Societal pressures on them are much greater than we face as Americans. And yet, they keep the plow to the ground. They press on. And they celebrate when one comes into the family of believers.
Our pastor asked them what we can do. They told us to pray for a new meeting place. For leadership to rise from their small gathering. For encouragement. For people to come to Christ because somewhere, Geert said, they are searching in the darkness.
Is my country following the pattern of the land where these two men shine a light in that darkness? I may never leave the comfort of my desk where I write about the places I don’t go. But eventually I might find concrete to plow in my own country. Around the big, comfortable building where I meet with hundreds of other Christians. When it happens, I pray my church is still a place of boldness, and not a museum.