Bon Jovi, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Hillary Clinton will appear at the $7.4 million bash recognizing the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down, but Berlin-based journalist Markus Spieker says that most Germans probably won't party. "Some Germans even lament the loss of the good old days during the Cold War, when everything seemed cozier and more obvious," Spieker said. "It's like the Israelites after the Exodus, taking the newfound freedom for granted." Similarly, he predicts nothing will change during the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's nailing of the 95 theses on the Wittenberg door in 2017. "When Jesus came into the world, there was no celebration, nothing was going on," said Spieker, who was a "pastor's kid" in West Germany 20 years ago and is now a journalist at a television station in Berlin. He spoke with online editor Sarah Pulliam Bailey at an ice cream shop next to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin about the church in Germany and why he thinks it's stagnant.
How is church life in Germany different than it is in the United States?
The Protestant state church is fairly dead. The percent of committed Christians in Germany is maybe at 3 or 4 percent. Eighty percent belong to a church nominally, Protestant or Catholic. A mere 0.5 percent belong to a free evangelical church. The percent of people believing in life after death is fewer than 50 percent. It's what a German philosopher, Ruediger Safranski, calls "cold religion," very left-brained, very cognitive, focused on rituals and membership but not on personal commitment. Sometimes the mainline bishops say we need to be more mission minded. But they don't put any money into it.
Is there something about German culture that keeps churches from growing?
Part of the problem is that German institutions are more important than they are in America. Unlike America, we don't have a history of being nonconformist, of doing "our own thing," of risking failure. We try to abide by the rules of the dominant system. And systems are slow to adapt. I like to put it this way: Europe is a legacy, whereas America is a project. Europe is about looking at what you have, not what you could have; it's about position, not potential, which makes change so much more difficult.
Do you think the churches are trying to grow?
Of course they'd like to grow. But in the end what [produces] positive results is not programs, but people. We don't have church "entrepreneurs" like Bill Hybels and Rick Warren. We don't have brilliant communicators like Tim Keller and Erwin McManus and Rob Bell and Mark Dever and Mark Driscoll. If these people were not pastors, they could be successful CEOs or entertainers or TV personalities. Whereas in Germany it's often the least gifted people who want to study theology. And the church institutions are full of bureaucrats.
Is this just a stagnant period or is there hope for change soon?
Every hundred years or so, you have major social unrest in Europe. You have people longing, looking for new solutions. And at that situation God anoints or calls people who are good with communicating and meetings those needs. People are so lonely these days, and relationships are so fragile. We are living in pretty revolutionary times. Relationships are different than at any point in history. You make 10 friends per day on Facebook. Of course, you don't have time for the other friends in real life. I believe we are living in a time of permanent crisis. What's a crisis? It's when people are too slow to adapt to new circumstances. Things move forward, and humans don't know how to deal with it. Suddenly they wake up and say, "I'm 40, my life's a mess, my relationships are all broken, I don't have my dream job, and I have nothing to look out for." So people are looking more and more open.
Another idea: In the Bible it's not the kings who matter; it's the prophets. This country doesn't have prophets. I'm not saying Tim LaHayestyle [people who make end-times predictions] but prophets who speak the truth, have authority, and know their thing. Luther was a prophet, Augustine was a prophet. Once in a while you have a prophet.
You don't see any prophet-like people in Germany right now?
Did anyone call Luther a prophet before he nailed the 95 theses on the Wittenberg door? Maybe he or she exists and is just waiting for the cue. Often, you have people addressing an issue, and suddenly people will say, this is also how I'm feeling.
The 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's 95 theses is coming up in 2017. Do you think that will spark any renewal or interest in the church?
No. When did an anniversary spark anything? Two hundred years of Jonathan Edward preaching. Wow. Let's have another revival. I don't think so.
It'll be just another celebration. But who will remember the real Luther? Luther was rude, Luther was a revolutionary, Luther was a punk. The church leaders in Germany are so unlike Luther. The current mainline Protestant church is the opposite of Luther. Luther would have driven most of our bishops from their pulpits.
Is there something that churches in Germany are doing well that churches in the United States could learn from?
The best German book on Christianity is Dietrich Bonheoffer's Cost of Discipleship. Nowadays there aren't many theological books from German academia that have a broad influence. When I'm looking for fresh theological thoughts, I look at American or British faculties.
The one thing I like about German churches—the few good mainline churches and the free evangelical churches—is that they are less ego-driven and celebrity pastororiented than some of the church life in America. We tend to have more humility in doing church—and maybe that's due to our history and our not-so-great experiences with super strong leaders.
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Previous articles on Germany include:
Germany's Christian Democrats | An administration official discusses evangelicals' political involvement—or lack thereof. (October 5, 2009)
A Lost Generation | Mainline churches in East Germany rediscover a sense of mission. | (October 1, 2009)
Church in State | In post-Communist Germany, Christian political involvement is surging. By Philip Yancey (March 10, 2008)
Other CT articles on Eastern Europe include:
Theology in the News: Europe's Past Is Today's Hope | Rome won't cede the continent to secularists without a fight. (October 5, 2009)
A Lost Generation | Mainline churches in East Germany rediscover a sense of mission. (October 1, 2009)
Eastern Europe's Evangelical Hub | A scholar discusses the development of evangelicalism in Ukraine. (January 29, 2008)
Under Reconstruction | How Eastern Europe's evangelicals are restoring the church's vitality. (October 13, 2005)
East German Church Lost 'Distinctive Voice' After Reunification | Forty years after the building of the Berlin Wall, cleric claims some churches are worse off (August 1, 2001)