“So are Protestants Christians too?” I was dumbfounded by this strange question. I was in conversation with an older Flemish Catholic lady. In her eyes only Catholics were Christians. She didn’t know much about Protestants. “Aren’t they a sect? Those weird people who take the Bible literally? So out of date, don’t you think?”
About two years ago, my husband Jan Willem Vink and I were approached by BEM. They asked us to undertake research in order to open up avenues for the development of a new vision. The work brought us into exciting encounters with missionaries, leaders, Christians and non-Christians in Belgium. At the time, I would have used the term “the Belgians”, but today I prefer to distinguish the Flemish from the Walloons. My husband, who’d spent a good deal of his youth in Belgium, was on familiar territory. But for my part, as a good Dutchwoman, I quickly realised that I’d under-estimated the cultural differences between our two countries.
The picture we were getting again and again from these meetings was that living in Belgium was uphill work for missionaries, and the soil was hard. Despite the obvious spiritual needs, there seems to be little openness to the Gospel. Most churches or fellowships remain small and years can pass with only a handful coming to faith. Some older missionaries spoke with enthusiasm of the good old days they’d known in the past when people were more open to the Gospel. The 80s and 90s in particular saw many coming to faith.
This all made us think. If what we’d been told was right, Belgium had not always been such hard ground. We wondered what factors had to be taken into account.
Having studied various missionary organisations, we’d noticed that the most important thing in their evangelism was God at the centre, along with the prayers of His followers. But Jesus also calls us in Matthew 28 to make disciples of all nations. So Belgians are included! But why then does the Gospel have so much difficulty in making headway here? Is it the fault of those ‘unresponsive, difficult Belgians, who resist any change’? No, I don’t think so! We’d met so many amazing, wonderful people who did show interest and asked questions about God, that we could only conclude the opposite. It must be said though that they didn’t really seem to know and understand much about God. And yes, usually you only love what you know and understand.
The influence of culture
Of course, we do know that in a period of spiritual drought, several factors, both spiritual and practical, need to be taken into account. This includes the influence of the culture in which the person who hears the message grew up. Culture influences the way a message is received, and culture changes over time.
We live at a time which differs in many ways from the 80s and 90s. At that period people knew something about Christianity, whether they had a Catholic or a Protestant background. Nowadays many young people have no Christian frame of reference at all. For many the Bible is a history book or even just a fairy tale from which you might possibly pick up some good lessons for life. In this post-modern age where ‘truth’ is a relative concept, not many people even know the gospel. Theologian, Stefan Pass, writes about this in his book ‘Vreemelingen en priesters’ (Aliens and Priests, 2015): “We live in a cultural phase in which Christianised Europe is disappearing before our very eyes.” A time when young people in particular know almost nothing about Christianity.
What does this mean for evangelism and mission today? How can we connect better with the culture of this country and what are the implications for our evangelistic methods? The missionaries told us that what worked well in the 80s and 90s no longer connects to the culture of today. And the same is true of methods imported from elsewhere. The Anglo-Saxon approach, based on church growth and measurable results doesn’t seem to work in Belgium: these methods just don’t have the same impact here as in the USA, England or Holland.
The experts at the ETF (Evangelical Theological Faculty) and ABC ministries recommended we read the intercultural studies of Professor Geert Hofstede. He lists five dimensions to use when comparing cultural differences between countries, including for example ‘uncertainty avoidance index’ (UAD) and ‘power distance index’ (PDI).
The UAD factor evaluates the way in which someone in a given culture reacts to situations that are uncertain or unknown. The Flemish and the Walloons live with a higher degree of uncertainty avoidance than, for example, Americans, Austrians, or Dutch. Even when convinced that change is good and necessary, it’ll be more difficult for them to let go of what they’ve always known. They won’t easily embrace change. Missionaries from abroad note the faithfulness and perseverance of the church in Belgium, but then run into resistance when they suggest something new. This is due to the high level of uncertainty avoidance here.
The PDI factor evaluates the way a society accepts hierarchical differences between individuals as a given fact. In Belgium this ‘hierarchical distance’ is also much greater than, for example, in America or Northern Europe. Much more power and influence is attributed to people in positions of authority, such as teachers, or church leaders by the average Belgian. Taking the initiative is generally left to those in authority rather than suggesting something oneself. On the other hand, gaining the trust of a Belgian is more difficult. Gaining their trust means investing in long-term relationships. We found that people in Belgian open up when you take an interest in them as people and show you value them, when you’re ready to learn from them and try to understand their culture. This requires humility. We should also mention that Belgians are quick to consider someone who comes over as ‘knowing it all’ as arrogant!
So much more could be said about a country’s culture in relation to mission and evangelisation. Jesus calls us to live by the culture and values of His Kingdom, which are often out of phase with the culture in which we’ve been raised. However, He calls us to spread the Good News of His Kingdom in this world. How can we build bridges to enable us to reach the inhabitants of Belgium of all generations? In formulating its new vision BEM has chosen to become a movement from which will spring communities of disciples of Jesus functioning on the basis of values like integration, journeying, participation and community. You’ll learn more in the next article.
Text by Kathy Vink-Oost
NB:- More information about the approach of Professor Hofstede and also evangelical Belgian culture can be found in the brochure published by ABC ministries (in Dutch): https://www.abcministries.be/vorming1/culture-gospel