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Martin Luther and Modern Church Attendance

Under the title, ‘Year 500: What Has Become Of Luther’s Reformation?’, Dale Hurd, in writing for CBN News (9 June 2017), probed points of contrast between Luther’s Germany and today’s, then explored the question as to how would Martin Luther feel about today's secular Germany?

• German Lutheran pastor Dr. Theo Lehmann responded that Luther would, "turn over in his grave."

• One of the world's leading authorities on the reformation, Yale professor Dr. Carlos Eire, says the number one reason Luther would be surprised by the celebration is that he didn't expect there to be a world in 2017. "Luther expected the world to end in his lifetime or soon thereafter," Eire says. "If Luther could time travel, he would just be shocked about what has become of the Christian world, the fact that so few Europeans now attend church."

In Germany today:

Pastor Johannes Block can consider himself Martin Luther's successor. He is the vicar of Stadtkirche St. Marien zu Wittenberg, Luther's own church. Here, Luther preached his incendiary sermons against Vatican corruption that led to the Reformation and the rise of the Protestant movement. It is where Protestant pastors were first ordained.

But on a typical Sunday, Block looks out over a mere 50 to 100 people in the pews: a tiny number in a city of 135,000, especially one whose official name is Lutherstadt (Luther City) Wittenberg. Indeed, nowhere in Germany is the share of Protestants lower than right here in Luther's homeland.


According to Detlef Pollack, a professor of religious sociology at Münster University, 4% of east German Protestants attend church regularly today, compared to 10% to 15% in the 1950s. Between the 1950s and the end of Communist East Germany in 1980, Protestant church membership there dropped from 80% of the population to 25%.

The Lutheran (Protestant) church reports that membership in the former East Germany has even dropped below that figure now. In the state of Saxony-Anhalt, where Wittenberg is located, only 13.8% of the population belongs to the Protestant church; in neighbouring Thuringia, the other main part of "Luther country," the figure is 23.6%. In a western state like Rheinland-Pfalz, by contrast, 30.5% of the population are Protestants, while 44.5% are Catholics.

"People thought the church would grow after the end of communism, but it hasn't," said Block. Some 4,600 Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt residents cancel their church membership each year, while some 13,000 die. The 1,000 persons who join the church each year cannot compensate.


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."

"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."

How different from the 1500s, when the energetic Bible scholar and Augustinian monk Martin Luther launched his highwire verbal attacks on Rome, accusing the Catholic Church of corruption and selling indulgences. After Pope Leo X excommunicated him, the German firebrand went into hiding at Wartburg Castle - also in Thuringia - where he translated the Bible into German for the first time.


Paradoxically, Luther country has seen tourist figures rise thanks to the "Luther Decade" that will end in 2017 with the 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses. As a result, on Sundays up to 1,000 joined the regulars at Pastor Block's unadorned Lutheran shrine. "Luther is to Wittenberg what Mozart is to Salzburg," he said.

But after the visitors leave, the 807,000 local Lutherans have to fill the pews in their 3,927 churches and chapels. That's a mere 205 parishioners per church, and almost four churches per pastor. Block faces an existential dilemma: Is he primarily a tourism officer at a Luther theme park, or should he focus on being the shepherd of a small local flock?

"This is the mother church of the Reformation," he noted. "Being a local parish and a tourism destination often presents a split, but we have to continue Luther's tradition."

Question is: is the level of church attendance any different in the United Kingdom?

The Express carried a report on Wednesday, 13 January 2016 which claimed that only 1.4 per cent of the entire British population attends Anglican services on Sunday morning, in a rapid 7% drop in five years.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has claimed a change in social attitudes as the overall average attendance dropped by 22,000 to 764,700 in 2014.

Numbers are now so low they are just one third of the figure in the 1960s. Elderly people dying has been one of the main factors in the drop in attendees according to the church. It estimates death of members can account for a 1% drop every year.

Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham James, said: "The 2014 figures are not in any way a surprise. While the recent trend of the past decade continues, it has been anticipated and is being acted on radically."

"The story is not one of inevitable decline. During 2013 to 2014 some diocese continued to increase their attendance. In the past 12 months alone there are examples of growth and new churches across the country.”

However, while it may be argued that attendance at some Evangelical churches has improved in some areas with congregations showing signs of growth, the rise in this sector is largely due to Africans migrating to the United Kingdom.


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