Are German Lutherans an Endangered Species?
By Awake! correspondent in the Federal Republic of Germany
SOME viewers may have been startled to hear the following words on German television: “The Lutheran Church will have no future at all.” Even more startling was the fact that they originated near the very region that brought forth Martin Luther, founder of that church and father of the Reformation.a
True, the United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany has about 25 million members, which is, according to the last official census, some 45 times as many as belong to all the other Protestant groups in Germany combined. Still, the church is in shambles, aptly symbolized on our cover by the bombed-out ruins of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in West Berlin.
In 1961, over 50 percent of all Germans were Lutheran. By 1970, the figure was 49 percent, by 1980, 46 percent. Then things seemed to improve. A German daily newspaper reported at the beginning of 1981: “The Lutheran Church in Germany has recovered from its setbacks of a decade ago. . . . Church membership withdrawals . . . have lost their ominous dimensions.”
But membership figures for 1984 showed this optimism to be premature. Estimates now are that the church will lose another 4,500,000 members within ten years. Thus, by the year 2030, only a third or less of the population would be Lutheran.
Why Are They Leaving?
On the aforementioned 1986 television program, seven former church members gave their reasons for disgruntlement: church opposition to Sunday sports, its financing of communist guerrilla movements, its stand on governmental defense policies, its dismissal of two homosexual pastors, and its neglect in caring for animals. Another resented the arrangement whereby church taxes are deducted from members’ earnings. Significantly, only two mentioned God. And yet, is that not what religion is all about?
Although serious, even more disturbing than the drop in numbers, says Johannes Hansen, a leading Lutheran theologian, is “the truly desolate religious state of church members.” This accounts for the fact that on a normal Sunday less than 6 percent of them attend church services, in large cities still fewer. Only one in four considers attending church or reading the Bible to be Christian requirements. In fact, about eight out of ten say that to be a good Lutheran a person must simply be baptized and confirmed, live a decent life and be trustworthy. No wonder the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung noted in an editorial: “The danger for the Lutheran Church does not stem from its numbers but comes from its lack of spiritual strength”!
Church members who lack spiritual strength view their church accordingly. They admire its rich history, boast of its beautiful buildings, and take advantage of the social benefits it offers. When it comes to “finding God,” however, many prefer to look for him in nature rather than in the church. This led a church leader to ask with sarcasm why they do not just go ahead and have their funeral services conducted by the Department of Forestry instead of by the church.
“What seems to be lacking,” commented a U.S. magazine several years ago, “is the passion for God and his truth that characterized the original Lutherans.” Why do so many Lutherans view their church as nothing more than a convenient framework for infant baptism, adolescent confirmation, and adult marriage ceremony? Why do they seek God in nature and turn back to the church only at life’s end for a “decent burial”? Why the lack of spiritual strength?
a To be exact, Luther was born and spent much of his life in what is now the German Democratic Republic, commonly known as East Germany.