Newsweek has an article about how Protestantism is dwindling in the land of Luther. It shows, I think, the futility of the liberal theology that the state church has embraced, the notion that in order to reach people you need to change your teachings so as to conform to the dominant culture. That’s a formula for making the church irrelevant.
The article also credits the Lutheran churches of East Germany, under great persecution under Communism, for its role in the anti-communist protests that brought down the Berlin Wall. This reminds us that NOT following the path conforming to the dominant culture can have great power and that the church is at its best in times of cultural conflict.
“In the German Democratic Republic it was difficult [for pastors] to be accepted in society, but people were aware of you,” said Diethard Kamm, a veteran pastor who serves as an assistant bishop in charge of the area.
“Belonging to the church meant taking a stand, to say, ‘This is what I believe in and I take the consequences.’ Today people think, I’m lord of my own life, why do I need the church? But in times of crisis, for example when the Iraq war began, our churches are full again.”
Here is the paradox: Under East Germany’s Communist dictatorship, where churchgoing was frowned upon, congregations were larger. Indeed, the Protestant church and its pastors and members were arguably the most important factor leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“In [East Germany], the church was a home for those who didn’t support the regime, and everything the church did had public significance,” said Christine Lieberknecht, Thuringia’s prime minister, a Christian Democrat who served as a pastor under the Communists.
As a teenager in the late 1980s, Jana Fenn attended a Christian youth group in Jena, East Germany because, she explained, “You could say things there that you couldn’t say in school, and you learned things there that you didn’t learn in school.”
But one day, Fenn said, her teacher wanted a chat: “She asked, ‘What do you do on Friday evenings?’ I said I went to the Christian youth group. Then she asked who else was there and what we did.” Even though attending the youth group meant Fenn and her friends were exposing themselves to official repercussions, they didn’t let their teachers intimidate them.
But today Fenn no longer belongs to the church. “I go to a service every now and then, but the church doesn’t have a role in my life,” she said. “It doesn’t really stand for anything anymore. I could just as well join Greenpeace.”
Added Pollack: “Catholics criticize their church more vocally than Protestants theirs, but they also feel a very strong connection. Protestants don’t feel such a strong connection. The Protestant church is seen more as an institution that runs daycare centers and provides social services.”
Tolerance and acceptance – who could criticize such benign values? That’s exactly the Lutherans’ problem. “People don’t know what exactly the church represents,” said Pollack. “It’s having a hard time differentiating itself from other organizations within civil society, from trade unions or political parties.”