A milestone is looming: At some stage in the next few weeks and months, the moment will come when fewer than half the people living in Germany are registered as members of one of the two main Christian churches. What Germans sometimes call the Volkskirchen, or "people's churches," will then, with their roughly 41 million members, no longer represent the majority of Germany's population of 83 million.
In 1990, there were still 58 million church members, or about two-thirds of the population. But their continuing dominance should not make us lose sight of the fact that, besides Catholics and Protestants, there are also 4.5 million Muslims, 1.5 million Orthodox Christians and more than 100,000 Jews living in Germany. And the biggest new religious buildings going up near Berlin are a prestigious Buddhist temple and the "House of One," where Christians, Jews and Muslims will worship and pray under one roof.
Dwindling membership affects both Protestants and Catholics, the former just slightly more than the latter, and in both cases there are many reasons. Sometimes the church is seen as too far left or right politically. Sometimes it is about church stances on sexual morality or profound scandals such as sexual abuse. And some regional waves of departures can be linked to concrete events and names, as was the case recently in Cologne after a sex abuse cover-up scandal.
But it is by no means always the case — it is perhaps only rarely the case — that leaving the church is really a deliberate act of dissociation, even if one occasionally hears of committed members breaking away.
Rather, it seems as if the two sides of Germany have lost sight of each other. The feeling of religion and belief, or even the feeling for religion and belief, is evaporating. And that's not because everyone is suddenly studying philosophy like mad. The world simply feels that any question can be answered with the help of Google or, at any rate, ethics councils.
This trend is a dramatic one at a time when big and fundamental questions are arising. About 20 years ago, it was the deciphering of the human genome and advances in stem cell research. Today, it is artificial intelligence, the dramatic challenge of climate change and the basic question of fair distribution of wealth in times of scarcer resources. Unfortunately, social ethics is not accorded any great importance within the churches.
Questions of meaning
The agonizingly long COVID-19 pandemic, which many experts see as a herald of future crises, can be added to the above list. All these things pose essential questions of meaning. And if people no longer expect anything from the churches, they look elsewhere for answers or ways out. Or celebrate themselves as their own religion.
That's why the fuzzy kind of affection for religion that some experts see as being on the rise holds no great promise. Formally organized, enlightened religion has its place, standing as it does in opposition to radicalization and egocentricity.
But both the Catholic and the Protestant churches must abandon their defensive stance and strike a different tone. In pandemic parlance one would perhaps say: Get in before the wave. Just going on as before, despite everything, does not help.
Part of this is about facing up to responsibilities. Churches still embody systems of power and, as such, they are quite rightly always under scrutiny. And that scrutiny turns to outrage when power turns into willful ignorance and delusion.
Churches as places of guidance
The solution also involves having representatives who seem worthy of being believed and with whom people can identify. That also means having an intellectual profile and the courage to have educational institutions in which flashes of spirit, including the spirit of God, are prevalent.
These days, people look for counseling and guidance in many places. Help lines have been booming during the pandemic, particularly at Christmas.
Emergency counselors are employed whenever an accident, of any seriousness, occurs. They don't always have something to do with churches. But they do demonstrate that counseling and pastoral care has more to do with sharing suffering and stress, than with simply being a moral authority that lays down what should or should not be done.
Do the churches still have the strength to do this? If so, they need have no fear, despite all their concerns of watching their membership dwindle.
Perhaps it would help them to take a look at eastern Germany, in regions where Christians have been a minority for many decades. It is there, far more than in the west, that you will find self-assured and cheerful believers who are anything but anxious about their faith.
This article has been translated from German