Does Luther Have a Future in Germany? A Quick Look

by Jobst Schöne, Berlin, Germany

Editors Note--This is a greatly abbreviated version of a full-length article from the Epiphany 2011 issue of the same name.

Germany: the homeland of the (Lutheran) Reformation. Is it a Christian country? Forget it. What about a Lutheran nation? Not at all. If this was ever the case, it certainly is no longer so. Today Germany has a largely secularized and unchurched population. Some fifty years ago, ninety-six percent of Germans belonged to one of two predominant churches, the Roman Catholic Church or the Protestant Church (the latter being partly of Lutheran, of Reformed, and of United traditions). Nowadays, less than two-thirds of Germany’s citizens still hold a church membership, at least on paper, and their numbers are constantly shrinking. In the last eighteen years, the Protestants lost 3.8 million members and the Roman Catholics 2.2 million. Church attendance on an average Sunday is down to 3.8 percent of the members in the Protestant churches, while the Roman Catholics are only slightly better off. As a whole, Christians in Germany are losing ground dramatically, moving quickly toward a shrinking minority.

Statistics, however, demonstrate only part of the changes taking place. Germany’s foremost newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, recently published a lengthy article entitled “What is Going to Happen to the Churches?” by Friedrich Wilhelm Graf, a Protestant systematician at Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich.1 He deplored the almost complete lack of intellectual integrity among church leaders, along with their poverty of realistic self-perception and theological seriousness. This crisis is a very deep one. What characterizes German churches, according to Graf, are feelings of well-being, emotions, moralism, and the attitude of the “prophetic know-it-all,” confronting the poor churchgoer with all the misery of the Third World and making him feel responsible for it. Sadly, this is typical of legalistic preaching that cannot properly distinguish law and gospel.

It is no wonder that this sort of church environment has created a widespread and growing attitude of “believing without belonging,” now found all over Europe. This phenomenon is perhaps better understood as an unwillingness to support a church that does not know how to communicate the gospel—how to preach salvation—and that has no better message to proclaim than the one illustrated above. The situation is bleak enough even without the numerous cases of child abuse in churches and Christian schools and homes that have recently been disclosed. These and various other scandals are altogether undermining confidence in the representatives of the church (and not only in those of the Roman Catholic Church).

Lutheranism in Germany has been totally marginalized. Certainly a few Lutheran remnants with a number of “conservative” and faithful pastors and their congregations can still be found in the Landeskirchen (that is, the former state churches), and within a church like the SELK (the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church), but mainstream Protestantism has lost its confessional orientation almost completely. Churches are generally considered to be nothing but assemblies of like-minded fellow believers, brooding over shared needs and problems that they experience in this world, but lacking a focus on eternal salvation. The inherited order of worship is almost gone; ancient hymns and the songs of our fathers are no longer sung. These have been replaced by contemporary forms, songs, and music that in the meantime have proven to be more destructive than helpful.

Among the upper circles a widespread feeling of helplessness is to be found, as the leadership does not know how to fight the church’s decline. In 2006, the EKD (Evangelical Church in Germany, comprising all former Protestant state churches) published an “impulse paper” outlining the outlook for the twenty-first century. The experts who wrote this lengthy statement had a clear vision of what is to come: decline in membership by one-third in the next twenty years, a loss of half of the church taxes (the foremost financial basis for EKD member churches) from the current four billion Euros to only two billion, and a necessary cut in the number of clergy by one-third. Overall it is a rather depressing scenario, revealing the depth of the crisis and calling for repentance and a change of heart. But what do the experts recommend? They call for the churches “to risk and cultivate more freedom,” to praise “inward plurality” as a “simultaneous temptation and blessing of Protestantism”; they strive after a “church of freedom and individuality.”2 One may wonder if it will still be the church of the apostles, the martyrs, and the great teachers of the past—the church Luther sought to cleanse, the church that Löhe and Walther had in mind.

With such a document in hand, it is easy to lose confidence in the future of an Evangelical church in Germany, not to mention the future of a Lutheran one. Once the Scriptures and the Confessions are no longer needed to clarify the church’s identity, their confessional profile is indeed lost and surrendered to modern pluralism. Thus we might have to accept that Christian churches in general, and a Lutheran church in particular, will gradually disappear from the public scene in Germany. There seems to be no need for the church any longer. A few years ago Johannes Gross, a well-known and brilliant German journalist and editor, and an accurate observer of public life (also, by the way, a member of the Lutheran Church), made a remarkable assertion. He claimed that the Protestant and Lutheran churches would not survive the twenty-first century; only the Roman Catholic Church will be left. Perhaps he was too negative or even altogether wrong with his prognosis; perhaps some small groups, some small churches will remain. So, too, the Lutherans, though marginalized.

Does Luther have a future in Germany? There is reason enough for skepticism. Yet on the other hand we are reminded of what Luther himself once expressed so clearly: “It is not we who can preserve the church, neither could our ancestors do so, nor will our descendents. Instead, it was and still is and will be he who speaks: ‘I am with you always, even to the end of the world.’”3 Does Luther have a future in Germany? If God desires it, he will have one—in Germany and elsewhere.

1. Friedrich Wilhelm Graf, “Was wird aus den Kirchen?” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (1 April 2010), 35–36.


2. Kirche der Freiheit: Perspektiven für die evangelische Kirche im 21. Jahrhundert: Ein Impulspapier des Rates der EKD, ed. Kirchenamt der Evangelischen Kirche in Deutschland (Hannover, 2006). Quotations: “…mehr Freiheit wagen und gestalten” (34); “Die innere Pluralität der evangelischen Kirche ist zugleich Versuchung und Segen des Protestantismus” (50); “…in der evangelischen Kirche—eine Kirche der Freiheit und Individualität” (86).


3. WA 50: 476.31–35: “Denn wir sind es doch nicht, die da kündten die Kirche erhalten, unser Vorfahrn sind es auch nicht gewesen, Unser nachkomen werdens auch nicht sein, Sondern der ists gewest, Jsts noch, wirds sein, der da spricht: Jch bin bey euch bis zur welt ende,…” (“Wider die Antinomer,” 1539).