The situation of the Church in Eastern Germany
Vortrag für Studierende aus den USA im Lutherhaus Berlin-Pankow am 08.03.2011
1. Atheism as the social milieu
In 2006 the Evangelical Church in Germany issued an “impulse paper” entitled “Church of Freedom.” The paper addresses the question of how the Evangelical Church can prepare for the future. Right at the beginning, it declares, “the social situation is favorable.” “People are asking about God again. Religious themes are drawing a great deal of attention. . . . The widespread indifference toward the Christian faith that characterized the last decades is yielding (!) to a new interest in viable, foundational values and reliable orientation.”
This description of the current situation is – in brief – false for Eastern Germany. Nearly twenty years since the end of “real existing Socialism” (Communism), over three quarters of the population in the new federal states professes no faith and is not religious in any serious sense of the word. In East Berlin, only 9.1% of the population belongs to the Evangelical Church; in many parts of the city, is it barely 2%. The “return of religion” or the “respiritualization” of society that is observed in Western Europe and other parts of the world is not evident here. The expectation that people would return to the churches or any other religious orientation after the collapse, after 40 years, of a dictatorship with an atheistic worldview proved false. Even religious sects have had little success here, despite initial fears. The eastern part of Germany has become a religious desert. While the so-called “achievements of Socialism” have rapidly disappeared, it has nevertheless left behind a special kind of atheism in the overwhelming majority of the population. Socialism created a social climate in which life without the church and without faith has become a basic,self-evident assumption. Most of the population has simply grown accustomed to living for the long haul without faith in God.
This getting used to life without God has led to a deep spiritual rupture with the past and therefore with Christian traditions and values. It has also led to a social distancing from the historical imprint that Christianity once had on the wider culture. Christian faith and Christian piety are no longer present in the family. It is already the case that the grandparents, perhaps even the great-grandparents, weren’t in the church; neither are the neighbors, friends, or colleagues at work. So, a social milieu has arisen that pushes aside everything that has to do with “religion.”
This milieu has continually regenerated itself since the changes in society twenty years ago and up to the present. It impacts the new generations in considerable measure today through the teachers in the schools, the majority of whom were able to continue in their posts after the “Wende” (the velvet revolution of 1989). Formed by their old habits, they are the bearers of atheistic convictions. They give new life to the assertion, for example, that religion is “unscientific” and belongs to the past. Under such circumstances, it is very hard for religious education to be established in the schools, even though it is guaranteed by the German Constitution. In Berlin, religious education is presently pushed to the side by a required class on “ethics.” And the schools get away with that, because both teachers and parents are overwhelmingly of the opinion that “religion” doesn’t belong in the schools.
It would be misleading, however, to equate this resistance to the church’s educational tasks in the public realm with a militant campaign against believers on the part of a non-confessing population that has distanced itself from the Christian faith. The atheism that has become habit or custom is quite far away from the kind of European atheism impassioned by the call for freedom or liberation. To encounter that kind of atheism today, you have to go further west—for example, to the so-called “new atheists” or “brights,” who want to enlighten people as to the depravity of religion and belief in God. The non-confessing population in Eastern Germany has, overall, no interest in that kind of enlightenment. Their atheism is characterized much more by a complete indifference toward belief in God. Such people no longer lose any sleep over how to repudiate belief in God or to ground atheism. For them, belief in God is no longer worth fighting about. Characteristic are the responses that young people gave to a survey conducted at the central train station in Leipzig. When asked if they understand themselves “more as a Christian or more as an atheist,” they replied, “Neither one, we’re just normal.” Ah, but what is “normal”?
2. The task of preparing the way for faith among atheists
The question of which foundational convictions are regarded as “normal” in a non-confessional milieu is a matter of great relevance for the church’s task of speaking about God in a non-confessional milieu and, therefore, for doing mission. Clarification of this question could help the church to find the right way to speak about God, in the midst of what the non-confessing population of Eastern Germany takes to be a “normal” life. It turns out that despite various surveys and despite lessons from experience, it isn’t so easy to determine what is “normal” for those who have an attitude of living without God, but also without an explicit atheism. We can nevertheless name several key points that frame a way of life in which God has been forgotten and atheism too has become uninteresting.
We can say, first of all, that the worldview of dialectical and material atheism, which during the Socialist times drove out people’s faith, doesn’t play a significant role anymore. The complicated construction of a worldview in which “matter” has developed itself through a series of “dialectical jumps” to the level of human consciousness and represents at the same time the laws of the movement of history by means of a “class struggle,” remains alive today only in the heads of a few old party members. This construction has with good reason almost completely disappeared from the discourse of our time about the basic conditions of our existence on earth.
But, second, the “normal” of which the young people in Leipzig spoke is also not the complete denial of all inherited values. It is not nihilism. To be sure, in the non-confessional milieu there are occasional phenomena of moral deterioration that generate concern. These phenomena are a result of the experience of the meaninglessness of one’s life. Isolated expressions of right-wing extremism in Eastern Germany belong in this category. But we can be certain that the overwhelmingly non-confessing population will have nothing to do with this extremism, because these people regard “anti-fascism” as part of their Socialistic socialization. This atheistic non-confessionalism is overwhelmingly characterized instead by something like an attitude of “just getting-along with everyone” that resists all extremism.
The third factor is that Socialism, as it was practiced in the German Democratic Republic, led those people who accommodated themselves to it to interiorize values of cultivating community. That included the readiness to help others, a sense of solidarity, the strong affirmation that everyone should feel that they have a place in society, and also a sense of justice, such that a non-confessional milieu strongly contributes to the stabilization of social harmony. Where this milieu, however, has been and continues to be deficient is in respect to the capacity to be innovative with the possibilities of freedom in a democratic, pluralistic society. Personal, free involvement for causes whose comprehensive ends go beyond one’s own familiar circle is not highly valued. Along with that is still the frustration, twenty years later, of having trusted in a totalitarian worldview that failed to deliver what it promised. Institutions that promulgate the convictions of a comprehensive worldview therefore have a hard time finding members. Under these circumstances, political parties and trade unions suffer just as much as the churches do. And even an organization like the “humanist society” that has atheism as part of its program isn’t anything more than a splinter group, even though this group claims to represent the whole non-confessing population.
For these reasons, the non-confessional milieu seems unresponsive to questions concerning the great challenges that face humanity as whole as well as the individual. That corresponds to what a representative study of the “Identity Foundation” discovered specifically about “spirituality in Germany.” According to this study (which also corresponds in large part with the research results of the “Religion Monitor” of the Bertelsmann Foundation), 40% of the German population can be designated as “unworried everyday pragmatists.” This percentage indicates that this phenomenon is on no account limited to Eastern Germany. Here, however, it is broadly apparent. People understand themselves to be nothing more than a product of nature. The meaning of their life is to make the best they can, as long as they can, out of their limited existence—the best they can for themselves, but also for their children, and then to disappear with as little pain as possible out of this world.
One can of course question whether it is correct to call such a way of life that claims to be satisfied with the limitations of earthly existence and exhausts its purpose within those limitations as pragmatically “unworried.” Naturally such a life is made “worried” by the problems that a moderately hedonistic conception of life, such as we have here, can hardly keep back. Failures in career and society, the loss of social recognition, the experience of human evil, the shattering of human relationships, the experience of illnesses of body and soul and, in the end, of death manifest themselves also in the non-confessional milieu. Such experiences call out for an ethic that teaches one to deal with all of these problems in a way that deepens one’s humanity, instead of repressing these problems for as long as possible, only to find oneself in the end in front of a pile of rubble. But in the non-confessional milieu, such an ethic appears at best as the respectable life wisdom of a few individuals. The pluralization and individualization of worldviews that a pluralistic society brings about, also in the non-confessional milieu, turns this milieu into a choir of diffuse voices.
One thing nevertheless unifies the Eastern German choir. Neither God nor institutional religion is needed to master the fundamental problems of human existence. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s critique of a Christian apologetic that would prove to “religionless people” (as he named them) their need for God as a problem-solver and “gap-stopper” for the unanswered questions of human existence is therefore still relevant. Whoever knocks on the door of the non-confessional milieu with the message of God as problem-solver, such as I have described here, can reckon with the door being slammed in his face. According to Bonhoeffer, that is exactly what should happen to the Christian apologist. He calls it “crude” to try to pressure people into faith by digging around in their weak places. But he found it above all unworthy of God when we cheaply sell him as a product to help people to feel better. If faith in God is to arise, it must occur within the freedom by which God through his Spirit encounters us, and not by means of a religious mechanism set into action by all too human efforts.
The question of what the Evangelical Church can do to fulfill its task of preparing the way for God’s free encounter with people in a non-confessional climate is therefore the principal question for the church in Eastern Germany: What is to be said about God and how is faith in God to be represented in the life and behavior of Christians, such that people who have long forgotten God and yet are not truly atheists can again become attentive to God? How do we approach people who thoroughly respect humanistic values and nevertheless are “everyday pragmatists,” who in various and diffuse ways busy themselves only with the problems of their existence? How can it become possible for people who are only content with themselves to sense again God’s Spirit as a living reality? Those are the most urgent questions before the church in an atheistic milieu—a church that must act missiologically if it is to be true to its task. The problem is whether the churches and congregations in the new federal states are in any kind of condition to realize this kind of mission.
3. The difficulties of mission
In view of the immensity of the task, many regard the call to place mission at the center of church and congregational service to be an illusion in the garb of abstract theological correctness. The reality is that the churches and congregations already have their hands full maintaining themselves as institutions spread over the entire land. But since the time of the early church, mission has meant that proclamation happens through the going out of the apostles of Christianity to non-believers, in the indwelling of Christianity in their life context. That is precisely what would also need to happen in the religionless atmosphere of Eastern Germany. In my opinion, faith in God can emerge only though personal contact with people who believe.
The atmosphere of distance from faith does not allow itself to be resolved from the outside, and so not through a media sound blitz. That just bounces off of people. For the typical East German (“Ossi”), the media news reports about religion and the religions just confirm that religion has to do with something absurd. He or she just throws it all into the same pot: the supposed miracles of the late Pope, and the Islam of suicide bombers; those trampled to death next to the Kabala in Mecca, and large church events; belief in the resurrection, and the journey of the soul after death; the Dalai Lama, and the Jesus-freaks on the Kurfürstendamm (a large commercial avenue in West Berlin); the blood orgies of the Passion of the Christ a la Mel Gibson, and the Da Vinci Code. If any of the non-confessing population asks about religion, he or she asks about this sort of thing, and not about the ways in which our religion gives meaning to us and is deeply humane.
People in Eastern Germany therefore need conversation partners in order to find their way through this religious mess and to determine what is genuine belief in God and what is religious nonsense. But the members of the Evangelical Churches in Eastern Germany are able to be these conversation partners only to a limited degree. In this regard, the church and congregational realities are the same as further to the West. The congregation is seen to consist of a small, actively involved core of Christians, while most members are only loosely connected to the church and regard it as a religious services provider to which they can turn if and when they have need, as for baptisms, weddings, and funerals—and perhaps on Christmas Eve. The fulltime church leadership can hardly accomplish what in the non-confessional context would really be necessary. They are completely loaded down with maintaining congregational life, and in addition have to assume administrative tasks and to deal with financial and building matters that really do not belong to their office.
This overburdening of pastors, Christian educators, church staff members, church deacons, and so on, is connected with the dramatic downsizing of positions that has taken place over the twenty years since the “Wende.” The reason is that the low church membership numbers in the new federal states do not support either the personnel or program costs that would be necessary to fill the inherited church structures with life. The churches in West Germany therefore help out with a so-called “financial compensation.” And there is considerable willingness in congregations to donate money. Many foundations have been organized to raise funds for the maintenance of church buildings and to support special projects. But none of that suffices to reverse the trends that undermine the church’s missionary task.
Because the number of fulltime church leaders is shrinking, entire areas of church work have to be eliminated, and the parishes have to be made larger, so that they can adequately finance the salaries of the fulltime church leaders who remain. The churches in Eastern Germany compensate for the low number of members in particular parishes by combining them. I know of parishes that are now the size of a former diocese and in which a pastor is responsible for 13 congregations, most of whose buildings are in dire need of building repair. “Fusion” is the way in which the churches in Eastern Germany seek to turn the reality of their weakness on the ground into something that can be stronger as a whole. Even the deeply-anchored Landeskirchen (regional church bodies) with their important local traditions have had to pay the price, as demonstrated in the case of the union of the Berlin-Brandenburg Church with the Schleisian Oberlausitz Church, or the new Central German Church Union.
As sensible this strategy is at the larger, regional level, all the more problematic in the long haul is the strategy of combining parishes on the ground. I am not the right person to describe the problem precisely enough from personal experience. But it cannot be ignored. The parishes must be much larger than in the days of communist East Germany, in order to support a pastor. Fulltime church workers—not only pastors—are shrinking in number. A similar development is occurring in other parts of Germany. But in Eastern Germany it is happening at such a pace that it is affecting the task of the church in relation to the larger population. In many places, only the minimum can be done to preserve the life of a congregation. Especially in rural areas, which suffer under a continuing exodus of young, working-age people to the West, there are already empty spaces on the church map.
In order to counter this situation, one diocese of my Landeskirche has developed and implemented a new model of church service. The diocese now consists of only four general pastorates, each of which has one pastor. Other pastors in the diocese are assigned particular functions—for example, for youth work, adult education, women’s work, and so on. This project has understandably upset many people and has been partly stopped. The problem is this: When pastors are no longer personally present in a particular place for the people and living with them, but rather make an appearance only as religious “functionaries,” they rob themselves of the essential basis for communicating faith in God. During the communist East German time, we lost people by the masses. They will be won back again only one by one. That is what our churches must get used to. But since most people individually have contact with the church only accidentally, the number of church members is stagnant or shrinking. Efforts to promote the church’s contributions to German cultural life don’t change that situation. Musical or other kinds of cultural presentations are experienced by the population like theatre plays that don’t commit them to anything. If there is really to be significant growth of the churches in Eastern Germany, it will occur only by placing the focus of the church’s service squarely on the building up of congregations, no matter what attention is also given to those people who are sympathetic to the church’s cultural function.
4. A minority with a future
Given the current situation and as far as we humans can ascertain things, in the foreseeable future there will be no “megatrend” of the non-confessing population turning to faith or to the church. We have to reckon with the reality that severalgenerations of the non-confessing population now see a life without faith and church as final. One can nevertheless doubt that coming generations will experience the climate or milieu of atheistic non-confessionalism as a fixed fact. That is because this non-confessionalism that expresses itself above all as indifference toward faith and the church has no inherent spiritual or cultural power to shape the future. It is as such only a negation. It relies on ethical and cultural borrowings from elsewhere in order to provide orientation for the future. One can recognize this phenomenon in the Jugendweihe (youth dedication ceremony) that continues to flourish in Eastern Germany. During the communist days, it represented a religious-like substitute for the church’s confirmation ceremony. This just proves that this non-confessionalism doesn’t have the ability from out of its own resources to organize atheism in any comprehensive manner.
In contrast, the minority status of church congregations represents a significant religious, intellectual, and cultural potential that has a jump ahead into the future in relation to collected human experiences with matters that reach deep into human existence. This potential cannot be underestimated today. This country would look entirely differently if there were no church. In this sense, the impulse paper of 1995 in the East German church did not simply repeat an article of faith, when it said quod una sancta ecclesia perpetuo mansura sit (a holy church that continues perpetually). It also made clear in view of the actual situation that the church has a longer future than any “unworried everyday pragmatism” or any surrender to pseudo- or substitute religiosity. Trusting this future, the church can and will try to get through this phase of simply maintaining itself, and will begin even now to set priorities in service of making the non-confessional, God-forgetful population familiar with faith in God.
It is impossible for me to give an overview of all the good, innovative, and creative things that are happening everywhere, in and thanks to congregations, such as the founding and expansion of Christian schools and kindergartens. These initiatives are drawing people’s attention to the church, overcoming their fear of contact with the church, and allowing Christian faith to radiate into society. We have every reason also to be thankful for everything that has been done in recent years to give the congregations a more inviting appearance from the outside. I wish to close, however, by emphasizing three focal points that are important to me personally and that deserve much more attention.
First, the fact that the church’s task can no longer be fulfilled alone by fulltime church leaders—especially pastors—has resulted in greater attention to the role of the so-called “honorably serving” (volunteers, without pay). It is wonderful that so many congregation members are ready to help out. But we should be aware that the category of “honorably serving” is a category from the world of voluntary associations and provides for their inner flourishing. The Reformation insight of a “priesthood of all believers” means, however, every believer is responsible for the proclamation of the gospel and is capable of articulating and representing his or her faith in a world that he or she shares with non-believers. Because there was a lack of such ability, it did not take much pressure from the side of the state to separate people from their membership in the church in communist East Germany. Congregations should therefore do everything that they can today to promote an understanding of Christian existence that includes setting forth the faith outside of the church, where one works and lives and spends his or her free time. It is essential in Eastern Germany that faith manifest itself, in this way, in those places where people distant from the church live their lives. This active understanding of the Christian life should be encouraged and enabled already at the time of baptism, in Christian education, in confirmation classes, and desirably also in religious education in school. The lazy, passive consumer of the religious services of the institutional church does not help the church in Eastern Germany move ahead.
Second, the reference to children’s and youth work, which includes work with parents and young adults, is not accidental in this context. In view of the situation that I have described, this is logically the focal point of the church’s service in a particular place. When we think of the coming generation, we see the chance to begin anew, without the ballast of prejudices and bad experiences that people have had with the church in the past. We can begin anew with what gives the Christian message its strength: namely, that God in his humanity brings to life everything that lets us be truly human. To put it briefly: faith in God’s clarity and clarifying power, hope in the future, and love for our fellow human beings.
Third, in order to hold these two things together—God and true humanity—our church must acquire intellectual and spiritual concentration. The religious pluralism of our society also tempts the church to experiment with whatever approaches the transcendental, the mysterious, the esoteric, the meaningful, the uplifting, etc. One should not simply negate these things, for the discovery that we humans are something more than that which we can control is able to support the truth of the faith. But this discovery can also lead us into a jungle of religious vines that choke the voice of the gospel. To keep a clear eye for what is possible or not possible here is in some ways harder than it was in relation to the monistic worldview of communist East Germany. In any case, what is required of the church is an ability to answer critically for the truth of the gospel and to be self-critical in regard to its own religious practice.
Due to the many tasks that confront the church in its forms of service, the ability and willingness to do this critical work has—to put it mildly—not grown since the “Wende.” When I think about the way in which theological books that made it across the Wall in the communist times were so eagerly snapped up, the disinterest in theology that is currently so widespread is troubling to me. It is simply not good that we here in Eastern Germany have gotten so stuck and entangled in our everyday, difficult service. Theology is no miracle cure. It cannot take the place of faith, hope, and love, or the spiritual life. But when it concentrates on the truth of the Christian faith, it can help the church to sustain the spiritual expansiveness that it needs in order to remain true to its task in a difficult time. Theology helps to clarify the questions that have to be clarified if we are to invite people to faith.
Fundamental questions belong here, such as whether God is almighty or powerless, a person or an impersonal power; whether he rules over the world and our life, or leaves us and the world alone to our own devices; whether he is the same God whom other religions honor, or not. If congregations give the impression that they themselves don’t know what to do with such fundamental questions, they will have a hard time attracting people to the Christian faith in God.
What is needed, then, in Eastern Germany is a church in which a growing number of people are capable of taking responsibility for the truth of the Christian faith. What is needed is a church that concentrates on the coming generation and remains awake spiritually as well as intellectually. If the church is really on the way to other people and enters into their world, there is no reason for resignation about the fact that reminding people about God makes such slow progress. To be sure, the Christian churches in Eastern Germany have become a minority of the society. But that quarter of the population that concentrates on the riches of God’s humanity has a huge jump ahead into the future in comparison to the diffuse manifestations of the non-confessional milieu.