Yerseke (Netherlands) (AFP) – Standing in a green field surrounded by black-and-white cows, Dutch politician Jaap Sinke surveyed the plot where construction of a new mega-church with space for more than 2,000 people will soon begin.
It will be the climax of a 15-year battle for a new building to house his village’s rapidly expanding congregation, the likes of which many church leaders can only pray for. And it will become the largest church in the Netherlands.
Sinke is the local councillor for the orthodox Calvinist Reformed Political Party (SGP) in the small parish of Yerseke, population 7,000, nestling on the shores of the sea in southwest Zeeland province.
Known for its aquaculture and fishing, the village will soon become home to the new mega-church, entirely financed by the religious community, with construction due to start next year.
A church in central Opheusden will still have more seats at 2,850, but the overall surface area of the building in Yerseke will be larger.
It’s a situation bucking the trend not just in the Netherlands but across Europe, where hundreds of former churches are now being turned into accommodation, event halls or put to other uses as people turn away from religion in droves.
Except in Zeeland, where in a part of the country dubbed the Bible Belt thanks to its high concentration of Protestants and Catholics, churches are being extended, buildings restored and new places of worship sought out.
– Bursting at the seams –
Every Sunday, twice a day more than 1,400 worshippers gather in Yerseke’s small church. “We can’t go on like this. For years now we’ve been adding chairs and benches to try to fit everyone in. The first row is glued up against the pulpit,” said Sinke.
And indeed, many others prefer to stay home and watch the proceedings on the television, knowing there won’t be enough places to sit.
“Over the past half a century, Catholic congregations in the Netherlands have radically fallen. Many places of worship have closed and parishes have been merged,” said University of Nijmegen theology professor Peter Nissen.
But the story is completely the reverse among Protestants. About 20 percent of Protestants still regularly attend church, compared with just six percent of Catholics.
Among the orthodox communities of the reformed church there are record attendances in places like Yerseke, where religion still represents “strong social ties,” said Nissen. The Protestant community “counts more than 100,000 people in the Netherlands and is growing every year by a few hundred”.
Indeed Yerseke’s congregation has never stopped growing, and counts about 2,300 people today.
Since it was built in the 1960s, the original church building in the centre of the village, squeezed between neighbouring houses and gardens, has been added onto several times.
An increasing local population is helping to drive congregation numbers, but education and tradition also play a role.
Children begin to accompany their parents to church at the age of three or four, and when they grow up do the same with their own children, Sinke said.
For an orthodox community living according to the Bible, church attendance is also a given, he added.
– Opposition –
Now after 15 years of delay, partly as the right spot was hard to find, the local council voted in 2017 to approve the construction of the mega-church on a parcel of land, which the farmer agreed to sell.
There’ll even be parking for some 350 cars, and an underground space to accommodate 700 bikes, said the bespectacled Sinke proudly.
But there is one last obstacle to overcome — opposition from about a dozen villagers who have taken their case to the country’s highest court, the Council of State.
A ruling is expected some time after the summer holidays, Sinke said.
Even those who were opposed, appear however to have given up the fight. “I was against the project. There is a nature reserve just a few hundred metres from the area and we didn’t know what to do about all the traffic,” said Marien Weststrate, who attends a church in a neighbouring village.
But the leader of the local Leefbaar Reimerswaal party said he had now realised “that more and more people are going to the church.”
And younger people are increasingly being drawn, he said.
“I think that comes from the fact that people feel protected at church while the world around them doesn’t stop evolving,” he added.
Sinke also welcomed the fact that “more and more adolescents and young parents are coming to services”, with the church’s entrance buzzing with young people every Sunday morning.