The Union of Baptist Churches (UBC) in the Netherlands was founded in 1881 with seven churches. Today, it reports about 80 churches with approximately 11,000 members.
Although most Baptists trace their history to the establishment of the first Baptist church in Amsterdam, Netherlands, in 1609, the Baptist faith did not take root in the western European country until the mid-1800s.
British exiles who founded the first church returned to Britain, while those who remained in the Netherlands became Mennonites.
Baptist witness in the Netherlands began in earnest in 1845 with the missionary work of Julius Kobner, an assistant to Johann Oncken, who pioneered Baptist missionary work in continental Europe.
Oncken, a German, has been variously described as the Father of Continental Baptists, the Father of German Baptists and the Apostle of European Baptists.
Dutch Baptists have strong Reformed roots. Of the first seven Dutch Baptists who were baptized, one was a former Reformed pastor. Others who became Baptists were from a Reformed background and tradition.
These early and subsequent Baptists were careful to emphasize their Baptist distinctiveness in their understanding and practice of believers’ baptism and baptism by immersion.
Some earlier Dutch Baptists were also dispensationalists and were isolationist in their relationships with others.
Dutch Baptist witness has been influenced by the geography of the country.
“We are divided by geography, rivers from Germany and Austria,” said Albrecht Boerrigter, UBC’s general secretary. “The north is Calvinistic, and the south is Catholic. Baptist mission is mainly in the middle and the north.”
The middle of the country is referred to as the Bible belt largely because of a strong Reformed presence.
“The characteristics in the middle of the country are different from the north because of this Reformed background,” Boerrigter said.
In more recent times, Baptists have begun to spread to other parts of the country, partly due to economics.
As coal mines opened up in the south, northerners, including Baptists, migrated there, seeking employment, taking their faith with them, which resulted in the establishment of new Baptist congregations.
Current Dutch Baptists see themselves as part of a worldwide missional movement.
“The whole character of mission for Baptists is changing. In the ’50s, there was a Great Awakening where a lot of people came to faith. These people formed the churches,” Boerrigter said.
These persons, now 70 to 90 years old, form a significant portion of the membership among Dutch Baptists.
Persons older than 65 comprise 25 percent of church membership, a figure expected to rise by another 10 percent in the next 15 years.
UBC is exploring ways to take advantage of this reality for missional purposes.
“You can see it as a threat or an opportunity to witness,” Boerrigter said. They are seeking ways to enable the generations to share together in a healthy way that not only bridges the generational gap but leads to growth.
There is also focus on church planting. In 2013, five graduates from the Baptist Theological Seminary of the Netherlands chose to become church planters in urban communities rather than to become pastors of established congregations.
Newer and younger Christians sometimes choose to live in urban neighborhoods to start new Christian communities, said Hans Riphagen, director of mission for the Dutch Baptist union.
“We have within our union a team of people who think about missional church development, how to help churches move in a missional direction.”
He said there are “very promising initiatives being taken by existing churches and new church plants, fresh expressions of what it means to be church.”
The presence of immigrants from countries such as Myanmar, a nation that has a strong Baptist presence among certain ethnic groups, has led to growth and diversity of membership within Dutch Baptist congregations.
An estimated half-million Christian migrants have entered the Netherlands in recent years.
The integration and participation of these immigrants are one of the challenges currently faced by the churches and the union.
Boerrigter made reference to the famous quote popularized by Martin Luther King Jr. about churches in the United States, “Eleven o’clock on Sunday morning [is still] … the most segregated hour in this nation.”
Other challenges include ministry in a pluralistic, relativist and secularized society, Riphagen said.
“The Netherlands is secularizing rapidly,” Riphagen said. “Churches have to find their voices again.”
He explained that Dutch Baptist churches needed to change focus from being inward-looking to opening up more.
“When you are very much inwardly focused, you have strong convictions on how the world is. But when you start opening up, you see the world has different convictions and there is a lot outside going on. We are going through the process of relearning what the gospel means in a plural society. ”
The secularization started in the 1970s when, Riphagen said, the belief began to take hold that there was no place for the church, and religion generally, in the big cities.
But though secularization is still problematic, things are starting to change.
“Nowadays religion is popping up everywhere. It has changed. It is much more fragmented,” Riphagen said.
This new fragmentation has led to the loosening of ties to denominations.
“Young people today won’t see being Baptist as something important as much as being Christian,” Riphagen said. “Authority is not in denomination or even in a church. It is much more subjective.”
Another challenge is to have a unified voice among Baptists in the Netherlands. Discussions are being held with another Baptist group, the Alliance of Free Baptists, on future relationships and cooperation.
“I think that the outcome should be that we go together,” Boerrigter said. Many of the Alliance of Free Baptist pastors are already trained by the union’s seminary.
A combination of the two groups, Boerrigter said, will create a much stronger body, one numbering some 30,000 members. This would help to maintain Christian work and ministry in the country.
He also emphasized that “we are missing the boat with young people” who do not have strong denominational ties and many of whom, themselves, are coming from a Reformed and other backgrounds to become Baptists.
Eron Henry is associate director of communications at the Baptist World Alliance (BWA). A version of this article first appeared in the January-March 2015 edition of Baptist World – a magazine published by the BWA. It is used with permission. You can follow BWA on Twitter @TheBWA.