The Liquidation of the Church

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Kees de Groot
Routledge New Critical Thinking in Religion, Theology and Biblical Studies
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , October
     2016.
     200 pages.
     $140.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781472477866.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In The Liquidation of the Church, by Kees de Groot, we find the perspective of one who is both a theologian and sociologist working on the current state of the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands. De Groot uses the metaphor of liquidationto describe his perspective. Endeavoring to find an alternative way to express the perceived decline of religion in the Netherlands, de Groot employs the metaphor that “the Church is moving from the ‘solid’ phase of a modern institution to the liquid phase of late modern de-institutionalized forms” (viii). This also “indicates both what is lost in the religious sphere and what is gained in the secular” (185). While de Groot’s focus is the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands, he identifies insights relevant to Christianity in general in the Western world. 

De Groot’s research is presented in five parts. In the first, he declares that we live in a secular age in which many individualists have forgotten God. They seek deep personal experiences in the language of various traditions but without being affiliated with them. In this secular climate, de Groot claims that the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands is becoming more of a service organization, one that increasingly serves clients while declining in terms of committed members. 

Part 2 examines life in and beyond the parish. De Groot notes the tensions within the Catholic Church created as some parishes move in a more progressive direction, more in step with societal changes characterized by individual choice, while others seek to remain true to the World Church and its long-established teachings, ethics, and organizational structure. One example provided of how the Church is endeavoring to be more fluid in society, is World Youth Day. This event places more focus on connecting young people in celebration without an overt appeal to membership. This was established due to recognition by the Church that young people are the most notable declining demographic; many are ambivalent toward membership yet receptive to experience-oriented events. 

The involvement of the Catholic Church in the secular sphere is the focus of the third part of de Groot’s book. The Church utilized television to bring Mass to those confined at home. They also established Christian spiritual centers, some dependent and some independent, of local parishes. Their primary purpose was to offer aid and community to those seeking to find meaning in life, and, while the Christian tradition dominates, diverse religious traditions and psychological approaches are explored as well. In addition, de Groot points to the initial establishment of a chaplaincy based primarily on the Christian tradition as an example of the Church in the secular sphere. He notes how more recently, spiritual care characterized by religious diversity, or, in some cases professional psychological care, are the current norm in chaplaincy-like services. 

In part 4, de Groot provides three examples of religion in the secular sphere. His title for this section, “The World Takes Over” (129), succinctly captures the essence of these examples. The first example follows the gradual secularization of out-patient mental health care. In the second, de Groot notes how the Zoetermeer City Museum undertook a project to interview individuals of different religious traditions and featured their stories in the museum for people to learn what others in their city believed and practiced. The intent of the project to develop better social relations in the community was deemed successful. His final example illustrated the use of religious language and symbols in various theatric productions intended to engage the audience in ways reminiscent of experience-oriented religious rituals. 

In his conclusion (the fifth part of the book), de Groot encourages us to consider the changes that have occurred in society, especially the decline of religious dominance. He perceives these changes as transformations rather than hostile takeovers and suggests new practices have emerged out of older traditions. He does not foresee a return to the dominance of the Church in culture and exhorts the Church to strive for a renewal of their image as self-disinterested people seeking to serve the world. 

Although I am not a Roman Catholic, de Groot’s observations of the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands is similar to Christian traditions in most of the Western world. Most research on church attendance and active membership points to an overall decline irrespective of denomination or tradition. It is also the case in the US that the Christian tradition has played a prominent role in the formation of cultural norms and practices since its founding centuries ago, and continues to influence it. However, societal secularization and pluralization has steadily grown to a place of dominance. The response by Christians to such changes in society can be one of retreat into collective seclusion in an effort to preserve distinctives or collective resistance in hope of regaining adherents and/or societal ground. But it is also possible, as de Groot suggests with his liquidation metaphor, to realize the opportunity of once again going into all the world proclaiming the Gospel to all creation (Mark 16:15) without one’s primary occupation being the protection of religious institutional assets.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kevin Staley in an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
April 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kees de Groot is lecturer in practical theology and religious studies at Tilburg University and Coordinator of the Master’s program Christianity and Society. He has studied sociology at the University of Amsterdam, wrote a doctoral dissertation on religion and mental health care at Leiden University (1995), and studied theology at Tilburg University. He has contributed to various volumes in and on sociology of religion, and has published on Zygmunt Bauman, Catholicism, theatre, and comics in the International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church, Social Compass, and Implicit Religion.

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