Provincializing the European Religious Landscape

Earlier this fall, Perspectives on Europe, the journal of the Council for European Studies, published a brief report I wrote about fieldwork that I conducted a few years ago with funding from the Council’s pre-dissertation fellowship. Since the report appears behind a paywall, here’s the full text.


In 1906, the famous German scholar Max Weber recorded the following episode from a trip to a remote town in Scotland:

This question [To what church do you belong?] reminds one of the typical Scotch table d’hôte, where a quarter of a century ago the continental European on Sundays almost always had to face the situation of a lady’s asking, “What service did you attend today?” … In Portree (Skye) on one beautiful Sunday I faced this typical question and did not know any better way out than to remark: “I am a member of the Badische Landeskirche and could not find a chapel of my church in Portree.” The ladies were pleased and satisfied with the answer. “Oh, he doesn’t attend any service except that of his own denomination!”1

A century later, the humor in this episode can easily escape readers, especially if their frame of reference is North American society. The Badische Landeskirche, the established church in the southwest German region of Baden, is a catch-all category for Protestants in the region – whether Lutheran or Reformed – not a denomination individuals would feel any special attachment to. When he recorded this episode, Weber had recently returned from an extended stay in the United States, and the exchange with the Scottish ladies was meant to illustrate a crucial contrast between Anglo-American and continental European society to his German readers: the centrality of voluntary religious organizations in the former, and their virtual absence in the latter. Alexis de Tocqueville had long before emphasized the role of voluntary organizations in American civic life,2 but Weber went one step further and foregrounded religious organizations as models par excellence of voluntary association.3 He regarded these forms of religious association (which, following his colleague Ernst Troeltsch, he referred to as sects) as incubators for and expressions of a peculiar mode of sociation. Sects are founded in large part on personal ties between their members, so they tend to be smaller and more rooted in a place than continental churches. In other words, there is something provincial about them, something not easily reconciled with the conditions of modern life in the metropolis. Weber believed that this exceptional cultural trait of the Anglo-American world was doomed to succumb to the ineluctable forces of bureaucratization, rationalization, secularization – in short, “Europeanization.”4 In Weber’s expectation, the religious landscape at the periphery, whether on the Isle of Skye or in the American states, would soon be dominated by the universalizing power of the center.

Today, things appear in a very different light. The “peripheral” experiences from the Anglo-American world have survived, and in fact they have carried over to the presumed “center” of the occident, continental Europe.5 This has a number of different reasons, more than I can unpack in this brief report, but one important factor is the effort to establish new religious associations on the voluntary model as serious competitors to the historic churches (such as the German Landeskirchen) in the “religious market.” This effort is commonly referred to as “church planting” by those involved in it. While growth in these associations, generally under the umbrella of evangelical denominations or nondenominational networks, has not been sufficient to offset declining membership in the older churches, it has nonetheless contributed to significant intra-Christian pluralization, resulting in significant qualitative, if not necessarily quantitative, changes.6

It could seem, then, that contrary to Weber’s expectations, we are seeing an Americanization of the European religious landscape. In this report, I want to complicate this view of the changing geography of European religion on the basis of my research on the church-planting movement in the German metropolis. While Weber was wrong to expect the normativity of the continental European experience for the West (or the world as a whole), it does not follow that the obverse, namely the Americanization of Europe, occurred. Rather, the transformation of Europe’s religious landscape is testament to what the historian Philip Jenkins has called “the coming of global Christianity.”7 To support this view – and to begin to understand how these dynamics play out in urban spaces – I present some evidence from semi-structured interviews I carried out with support from the Council for European Studies with church planters in Berlin and Hamburg in 2010. In addition to these interviews with church planters, I also interviewed experts based in Wuppertal and Berlin on church life, and conducted participant observation in numerous newly founded churches in Berlin, Hamburg and Munich. In what follows, I focus particularly on one of these interviews that indicates directions for further research on how church planting is reshaping the religious landscape in Europe.

I interviewed Soo-young (a pseudonym) in the offices of the church she works for. The offices adjoin a gallery space run by members of the congregation in a fashionable neighborhood close to the center of Berlin. Soo-young, a young woman in her early thirties, joined the staff of the church not long after it was founded – about five years prior to the interview – first as an intern, and later, after completing her theology degree, as an employee performing various pastoral duties in the congregation. The church’s congregation at the time numbered between 350 and 400 members, almost all in their twenties and thirties, university-educated, and white. Soo-young’s biography and involvement in church-planting activities illustrate some of the various scales at play in the remaking of the geography of Christianity in Europe. A native of Berlin, Soo-young was born to Korean parents who initially came to West Germany as guest workers in the 1970s. Her parents became Christians in a Korean-speaking Presbyterian church in West Berlin, and later, when Soo-young and her sister were in their late teens, their parents moved to southwestern Russia to work as missionaries, leaving their daughters in the care of relatives in Berlin so they could finish their secondary schooling. After graduation, Soo-young moved to southern California to attend an evangelical Bible college for two years, taking courses in scripture, apologetics, missions and theology. Her studies at the Bible college complete, she stayed in southern California for another three years, working for a small, mostly Korean-American (but English-speaking) evangelical church. Soo-young then relocated to Germany to attend a private, non-denominational theological seminary. At the seminary, in the course of a lecture on church planting offered by a lecturer from Canada, Soo-young first heard about the plans two recent alumni of the seminary had to start a new church in the center of her hometown, and she immediately signaled her interest in getting involved to them.

Soo-young’s story indicates some of complexities involved in the remaking of the religious landscape in Europe. It is not simply a matter of importing the Anglo-American form of religious association to Europe. To use a trope found in the work of Paul Gilroy,8 her story has multiple routes and roots that are in tension with one another. There is the migration of her parents from Korea to West Germany, her voyage across the Atlantic, and finally her return to Germany. She is rooted in Berlin, her hometown; in the Christian church; and in Korean ethnic communities. Neither of these routes or these roots alone determines the ultimate outcome of her story. There is no stable center of gravity. This is something I found repeatedly in the course of my interviews with church planters. I usually started out the interview asking the respondent to draw a map of the most significant stations in her life. While the United States, Canada or Britain played a role in many of their narratives, these places never played a dominant role in the inception of new churches, only a supporting role. While it is risky to draw conclusions about macro-level changes based on such narratives, they suggest some of the ways in which the geography of Christianity is changing. Rather than a new normative center taking the place of what was once called “Christendom,” Christianity is being decentered. International migration and the deterritorialization of religious traditions appear as two very important factors in this process. According to a recent report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, there are an estimated 13,170,000 Christian immigrants in the European Union who were born outside the European Union. As these immigrants continue to make their place in Europe’s religious landscape, the geography of Christianity will be further transformed.9

Prior to joining the staff of the church plant in Berlin, Soo-young worked for its sister congregation in Frankfurt, another urban church also started by graduates of her seminary. Both congregations make a point of being part of a movement that supports the establishment of additional new churches in other urban contexts. They draw inspiration from the model of urban church planting put forward by the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, Tim Keller.10 In the early stages of the church-planting process, the new church plants rely on outside funding, often sourced in part from wealthier congregations in the United States, to sustain themselves, but they make a point of reducing the proportion of their budget covered by outside sources from year to year. The goal is for congregations to cover their budget entirely through internal funding and to become self-sustaining. At the same time, they also dedicate more and more funds to support other church plants. Thus, a sizable part of the budget of Soo-young’s church in Berlin was dedicated to supporting two new church-planting projects – one in Hamburg and another in a different neighborhood of Berlin.

The result of this strategy is what might be called a rhizomorphic pattern of growth. Growth of new churches does not proceed from a common root or stem – a “command center” such as the Vatican – but in a lateral manner. Again, this finding sheds some light on the manner in which Christianity is being decentered. The diffusion of authority in voluntary religious associations makes it possible for any congregation to initiate new churches. In addition, the availability of financial support, even crossing international borders, further enables such religious entrepreneurialism.

In the course of my dissertation work, I am conducting further interviews and studying additional church-planting projects in hopes of building on these preliminary insights. My dissertation engages a series of frameworks, some of which are taken from sociology, others from neighboring disciplines. This puts me in dialogue with a wide array of thinkers trying to make sense of the place of religion in contemporary society. In addition to literature on global Christianity and deterritorialized religion, I seek to build on the sociology of missions and conversion, secularization theory, the lived religion approach, and the social thought of the Georg Simmel.


  1. Max Weber, “The Protestant Sects and the Spirit of Capitalism,” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, ed. and trans. Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, [1906] 1946), 303. 

  2. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. J.P. Mayer, trans. George Lawrence (New York: Perennial Classics, [1835–1840] 2000). 

  3. Lawrence A. Scaff, Max Weber in America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011). 

  4. Claus Offe, Reflections on America: Tocqueville, Weber & Adorno in the United States (Cambridge: Polity, [2004] 2005). 

  5. David Martin, On Secularization: Towards a Revised General Theory (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005). 

  6. Thomas Kern, Zeichen und Wunder: Enthusiastische Glaubensformen in der modernen Gesellschaft (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1997), 161–62; John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World (New York: Penguin, 2009), 136. 

  7. Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). 

  8. Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993). 

  9. Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, “Faith on the Move: The Religious Affiliation of International Migrants” (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2012). 

  10. Joseph Hooper, “Tim Keller Wants to Save Your Yuppie Soul,” New York Magazine, November 29, 2009; Tim Stafford, “How Tim Keller Found Manhattan,” Christianity Today 53, no. 6 (2009).