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The unexpected Reformation

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Astrid Prange
October 31, 2017

Germany as the country of Reformation is a thing of the past. Most Protestants today live in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where Martin Luther's future anniversary celebrations need to take place, writes Astrid Prange.

Evangelical church service in Brazil
Image: AFP/Getty Images

"In the beginning was the Word." It is this famous Bible translation by Martin Luther that the Reformation anniversary could use as its motto. With these powerful words, Luther's thesis sparked the Reformation 500 years ago.

Big dreams and high hopes came along with the anniversary, with Martin Luther serving as an ideal spokesman. There was even talk that celebrations here for the original Reformation would lead to a new Reformation, and bring unexpected new herds to the Church's flock.

Those hopes were accompanied with great enthusiasm – not just for the year, but for 10. Here, the 500th anniversary has been celebrated since 2007. Germany's Evangelical Church declared it the "Luther Decade."

Protestant disillusionment

But that hope has given way to disillusionment. A renewed Reformation never took place. The number of Christians in the land of Luther continues to shrink. Here, Luther's fear of God, his radicalness and his call for lifelong repentance fall largely on deaf ears.

Astrid Prange
DW's Astrid PrangeImage: DW/P. Böll

Despite 2016 being the first time in a long time that more people joined the Evangelical Church than left it, in all since Germany's reunification in 1990 the number of Protestants as a share of the population has dropped from 36 percent to 26 percent.

Reality has slowly set in: Even an event as momentous as a 500-year anniversary cannot be sustained over a decade. The organizers, most of all Germany's Evangelical Church, overplayed their hand.

Charismatic and radical

They also failed to fully appreciate an important trend of the "Reformation's global citizens," an accurate description of the Lutheran World Federation: The Protestant renewal is no longer happening in Germany, but abroad.

Of a world population of 560 million Evangelical Christians, 228 million live in Africa, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, ahead of the the Americas (about 130 million), Asia (100 million) and Europe (90 million). Of the 2.3 billion Christians worldwide, two-thirds live in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Most are Catholic, but there is a growing number of Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians who interpret the word of God in a theologically strict and politically conservative way that strays from German Protestantism.

Counter-Reformation in Lagos?

This new, conservative Reformation will come to Europe, too. How should the Church here react? What would Luther say about this kind of "Reformation?" Would he welcome a literal interpretation of the Bible?

Instead of continuing to work against the Catholic Church and the Pope 500 years later, Protestants should block this modern form of preacher, who spreads the so-called gospel of prosperity or the idea of the coming apocalypse.

Germany, as a world leader in theology studies, is well-equipped to handle this debate. Furthermore, its society's Protestant-centered worldview continues to shape political culture, despite the fact that belief and faith in God are vanishing.

It is therefore time to return to Luther's origins: "In the beginning was the Word." The theological conflict over the "new" and "old" Reformation cannot only take place in Germany. It must also happen in Lagos, Seoul and Sao Paulo. The next Reformation celebrations should take place in one of these cities, too.

Germany: Church searches for lost souls

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