Why Christianity is becoming increasingly irrelevant

von Daniel Justus

In the free churches in Germany, people have long hoped for a “revival” and still do, but in the meantime more and more free church members have to realise that worship attendance is declining in almost all Western European countries. Pentecostal churches such as the Bund Freikirchlicher Pfingstgemeinden in Germany are recording slight annual increases in membership, but these are vanishingly small in relation to the total population and are unable to form a real countermovement to the advancing secularisation process in Germany and Western Europe.


The Protestant Church is halving in size

The Protestant Church in Germany (EKD) has already resigned itself to the fact that in 2060 it will have only about half as many members (10.5 million) as in 2017 (21.5 million). However, if one looks at the development of membership over the last four years, one can come to the conclusion that it will not be that long before it is halved, because the numbers leaving the church have been strikingly high recently. At the end of last year, the EKD had only 19.15 million members.


Other churches are doing the same

This is not only the case for the EKD, but actually for almost all large churches in Europe. Almost all of them are recording a decline in worship attendance. With the exception of Portugal, the number of people who still belong to a church has fallen sharply in all Western European countries in recent decades. Whereas in the 1950s the churches were still considered to be real representatives of a country’s population, today they are only a small voice among many in the countries of Western Europe.


Table Religiosity and spirituality in selected countries in Europe, 1998-2017 [1]

Country Neither religious nor spiritual in %
1998 2017
Belgium 45 62
Denmark 42 64
Finland 33 54
Great Britain 44 55
Italy 18 38
Netherlands 41 60
Norway 50 62
Portugal 25 18
Sweden 53 66
Total 39 53


No use any more

Today, neither church affiliation nor church practice nor church convictions matter to the individual. There is currently no end in sight to this trend. People are not becoming less spiritual, but their spirituality is no longer denominationally bound, it is being de-privatised, so to speak. Even people who still call themselves Christians are of the opinion that they do not have to belong to a church to do so. There are many reasons for this, but they would go beyond the scope of this short article. I would like to mention only one major reason here:

Western individuals see little benefit for themselves in the churches anymore.


Shaping force in history

Throughout history, the churches have been responsible for many social, economic and technical changes. Jesus was a revolutionary of his time with his message. So was early Christianity, which challenged existing social hierarchies with its anthropology and ethics. The monasteries were sophisticated enterprises that created new and unprecedented administrative systems. The cathedral schools were the forerunners of the most famous universities in Europe. Numerous advances by the churches are also worth mentioning in the fields of literature, art and architecture.


Today preserving and reactive

But in the 20th and 21st centuries, there is not much worth mentioning. On the contrary, the churches have always had the image of being hostile to science. Physicists invented almost all the technical devices that make our lives easier. We owe medical progress to biologists and chemists, and anyone who is ill today no longer goes to the priest, but to the doctor. Liberal Western Europeans rarely need the church any more, if at all. They can find everything they need to be happy elsewhere, and they are happy to do without a prohibitive ethic that dictates to them. Of course, they appreciate the churches’ commitment to those in need and some also appreciate the ritual offerings of the churches at the turns of life, but they are no longer needed for anything else.

The churches are no longer a creative force, but a preserving and reactive one. Biologists invented contraceptives, and some churches are still considering how to respond. Computer engineers invented the internet, and churches debated whether to use it. With increasing scientific knowledge, churches are asking themselves whether they should still hold on to biblical worldviews.


No more new insights

At the same time, they hold on to old forms and traditions that have grown over centuries, even if these no longer have anything to do with the reality of life for modern people. The free churches behave differently, at least in this area. But they too have no really new insights into God that have not already existed in church history. No church today can make truly new statements about God that could be shared by all churches. Yet God, in his extensive attributes, is a being that has not yet been truly explored. The lack of unity in theological questions and the lack of knowledge about their own core business (God) make the churches even more untrustworthy in the eyes of secular Western European society. But whenever a religion was no longer of use to people, it became meaningless. It disappeared or changed.


Pentecostal churches defy the trend

Pentecostal and other evangelical churches are experiencing greater growth outside Europe. In Western Europe, this growth is not as abundant, but nevertheless one can speak of gains in the last decades. To what can this be attributed? The sociologists Pollack and Rosta report that there are many opportunities in Pentecostal churches that one can use as an individual. This concerns not only religious practice in the church services, but also leisure activities such as sports, travel, educational events and other meetings with like-minded people. These groups help each other, stand up for each other and create opportunities for personal development. Moreover, since these circles are mostly made up of serious believers, this gives stability to Pentecostal churches.

Furthermore, these churches place great emphasis on the concrete experience of faith and satisfy religious needs that other churches obviously no longer fulfil. People in the other churches then no longer find it difficult to leave their own church and find a new spiritual home in the free churches. In Brazil in particular, such an upheaval is taking place in the Catholic Church.


How to move forward

So churches need not be caught up in the secularisation trend if they manage to break away from outdated forms and offer people real added value. But the bigger and older an institution is, the slower it changes. Christianity in Western Europe must therefore come to terms with the fact that it is slowly becoming a small and foreign group in its own country again, as it once was.



[1] RAMP 1998 quoted in extracts from Pollack/Rosta 2022: 246

Detlef Pollack/Gergely Rosta: Religion in der Moderne. 2022

Yuval Noah Harari: Homo Deus. 2020


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