Belgium is post-Catholic. When I ask someone if they have a faith or follow a religion, many middle-aged friends quickly dismiss the idea – ‘that’s something people did in the past.’ In Belgium, religion is an outdated relic. People will often freely admit that they were brought up in the Catholic church but feel no need to explain why they have moved on. To them it is obvious. It is true that the church has been at the centre of a number of scandals over the years, to the point where most people find it difficult to justify its credibility. So for a couple of generations, the state church has lost its way and, instead of the Christian faith, people tend to believe a whole range of philosophical ideas. Few hold strong convictions except that of ‘tolerance’. (This, however, does not include those fanatical about their faith: Islamic extremism has left its mark.)
Younger generations have grown up without any spiritual guidance from their parents except the belief that they have to make up their own minds (and, of course, be tolerant!). So today, most people of faith are found among the immigrant populations and religion is seen, at best, as something quaint for other people, and at worst, something dangerous to be avoided and regulated.
A couple of generations ago, the need to find workers for the coal mines in Wallonia led to a wave of immigration from Italy. Tens of thousands of workers came north including hundreds of Pentecostals and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Both groups were enthusiastic evangelists so many people are now wary of discussing religion. We find it takes us a while to build up trust among our friends before we can broach anything concerning personal faith. Like politics, religion is a taboo subject!
Some of our friendships have progressed to the point that, when faith and religion come up, we can share our opinions while respecting those of others. We find that few people are aware that there is any good news to share – it’s assumed that we have our own beliefs and that’s fine provided we don’t share them with others. In Belgium, few people come to faith. When they do it is by ‘belonging before believing’ – friends of Christians spend months or years among a community of believers where gospel truths are explained over time. When our friendships naturally lead to discussions about belief, we never know where to start. Do we assume that our friends agree that there is a God and if so, what sort of God is he? (I have found Glen Scrivener’s suggestions of where to start helpful.)
I like to assume the existence of God and frequently start with the principle of revelation: the idea that God has to reveal himself for us to know anything about him. Once we have spent time looking at what he has said through his word and his Son, I aim to bring them to the point where they can see that believing in a loving God is rational and therefore worth pursuing.
We recently welcomed a lodger doing a short-term apprenticeship in our town. He had little or no previous contact with Christians but during his three months with us, we talked over a multitude of subjects including the gospel. This is approximately what I shared with him one evening:
‘Let’s suppose there’s a supreme God who created this incredible world. In fact, he created you and me and gave us life. But what if he was no longer interested in us? If this is true, there is no hope for us – just oblivion at the mercy of the forces of the universe. But if God is interested in us – or more than that – if he loves as the Bible claims, then there is hope!
In that case, it is entirely reasonable for him to reveal himself, to speak out and declare his love for us. The Bible tells us he’s done this through his spokespeople over thousands of years, people who have faithfully recorded his message of love to the world. Finally, he revealed himself supremely through the divine person of Jesus Christ, son of the Father in heaven.
However, when he came the world did not recognise him for who he was: the Son of God. What’s more, he upset all our cherished religious notions to the point where we ‘neutralised’ him by the horrendous death of crucifixion.
That, however was not the end of it – God brought him back from death! In his unprecedented mercy, he had planned beforehand that the death of his son would be a sacrifice and that those who trust him with their whole lives might live, join the family and share in the ultimate blessing, that of knowing him for eternity!’
Our lodger was grateful to hear the message but was more concerned with the advice his life-coach was giving him about the best diet for high energy sports. We keep up the friendship and pray that he will one day consider the gospel afresh and come to know the Lord Jesus for himself. In the meantime, we will keep sowing gospel seeds and trust the Lord to raise his harvest.
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Charles planted a church in Binche, Belgium in 2005 with his wife, France. Charles preaches most Sundays whilst Frances leads services, teaches in the Sunday school, manages finance and admin and helps with music. Find out more about their ministry.
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