In 2004, my wife and I accepted new assignments in The Hague (Den Haag per the locals), the capital of The Netherlands. We worked there for two years, then repatriated back to the United States. We did not speak Dutch, but the Netherlanders spoke fluent English and the office language was English. There were the normal assimilation issues, but our move to The Netherlands was not a difficult transition and we enjoyed our time there.
After renting a house a little more than a mile from the office, we started to look for a church. While jogging through the city streets, I noticed an oddly shaped metal building near the international school. I stopped to read the sign: The American Protestant Church of The Hague (APCH). This church was founded after World War II when the US Army donated their portable metal church building to the Dutch Reformed (Protestant) Church. It still serves as the church for English speaking local and international Protestants. The Hague has many international residents because of its many foreign embassies and the international ex-pats who work at the head office of Royal Dutch Shell, my employer. APCH serves as ‘the home away from home’ for Protestant ex-pats.
While we worshiped at APCH for only two years, I became very active in leadership positions. I chaired a strategy committee that created and gained endorsement of the church mission statement, a year-long process involving many consensus steps to ratify. What was truly remarkable was the church’s diversity. Their website states: “APCH brings together an international community of Christians from over 40 nations and almost as many denominations.” A worship service pictured on their website is like a United Nations gathering. All are joined together by a common faith in Jesus Christ and the English language. Dress, accents, skin color, and customs varied, but all believed in Jesus Christ.
In early 2010, we moved again to Europe, but the location was London. We joined Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), an Anglican church located near Harrods Department store. For most of the 19th and 20th century, HTB served as a typical Church of England parish church. It was transformed by the Alpha course on Christianity in the late 1990’s. Like APCH, worship at HTB was an international gathering of various nationalities tied together by a common faith. The language was English, but for many, it was their second language.
The Hague and London have many differences, but one major commonality; both have a large international minority. The population of London is now 40 percent foreign-born, far higher than any major American city. Walking the streets of London, one will quickly notice the many international restaurants, hear many languages spoken, and observe the foreign clothing. London today is not the London of World War II! We once stopped for gas at a Shell station just outside of London and the workers were all Sikhs from India. Grocery stores have specialty isles for Asian, eastern European, and Middle Eastern customers. We once attended a Russian Orthodox Church, located a few blocks from HTB, with a Russian Christian friend. The service was in Russian, which limited its membership to Russian-speakers.
In The Hague, we would shop for fresh fruits, breads, and cheese at an outdoor market. We were surprised to see more immigrants selling their wares than the local Dutch. If I was somehow plopped into this market without being told where I was, I would have guessed somewhere in the Middle East.
What does this mean for Christianity? As Western Christianity declines and evolves into secularism, immigrants fill the pews. African and Asian Christianity, a focus of evangelism, has repopulated UK churches. In fact, London has the highest religious population in the UK. Immigrants migrate to large cities for employment and cluster with other similar immigrants. Depopulated Western churches are being repopulated with immigrants.
What does this mean for society? Instead of accepting secular values on abortion, sex outside of marriage, and liberal governmental policies, immigrants are practicing traditional religious values. It is interesting to note that the more conservative elements of society (the more vocally anti-immigration) are excluding immigrants who practice religious conservatism, celebrate religious holidays, and form tight family bonds. These immigrant traits should be embraced by conservatives.
I love my Austin church community yet yearn for a more diverse membership. Our church swings open its doors to all, but it is difficult for immigrants to feel welcome when surrounded by aging white middle-class members. APCH became diverse because it was an English-speaking Protestant church within a Dutch community. HTB became diverse because it focused, through Alpha, on the Church ‘outside the church.’ Austin, the fastest growing major US city, has the opportunity to embrace foreign-born Christians. Churches that strategically reach out to immigrants will be rewarded with growth and renewal, reversing the growing secular trend.