Luther's Spiritual Heirs Face an Uncertain Future
By Niels Sorrells
WITTENBERG, Germany -- Faced with declining membership and income, it's little wonder that Germany's Protestants see an overwhelming stretch ahead of them. And so they came here, 300 spiritual heirs of Martin Luther, to plot the future. No theses were nailed to any church doors. Instead, they talked about the church's future and discussed topics ranging from media branding to church finances. It's no secret that church attendance is dropping throughout Europe; Germany is no exception. What's key here is the actual number of people registered in the church -- and the percentage of their salary that is automatically deducted for church operations. It's a fundamental danger to the institution if they are not registered as church members. Demographic trends have made it clear that the day is soon coming when the church simply won't have enough money to keep operating.
Somehow the discussions about the fate of Germany's state church sound frighteningly similar to ones I hear in the LCMS. They are looking to save an institution. It's all about the numbers and financials. I know that we are talking a lot these days about evangelism in Missouri. Still, the motivation seems too often to come back to the fate of the Synod and its declining numbers.
The Synod has value, to be sure. Missions, educations, relief organizations, etc.. There are simply some things we cannot effectively do alone. But its survival is always secondary to the proclamation of the Gospel. If the state church fails to survive in German, then so be it. The free church there has been more effective in proclaiming the Gospel anyway. I remember some years ago talking with a recent graduate of Germany's university system where he went to train for the ministry. He mentioned to me that there were congregations in that country of at least 10,000 members, but with only a meager 100 in the pews on Sunday. Germany has more problems than finding ways to pay its bills.The Lutheran church will survive despite denominations and state church organizations and even despite the ups and downs of a fickle economy. It will survive in little country churches scattered throughout the world, where small, faithful flocks gather each Lord's Day to hear the Word, feast at the Supper, and leave to live this faith in their daily vocations. They will survive at tiny outposts in a sea of relativity and indifference, much like the monasteries of the 5th and 6th centuries existed in the midst of pagan Europe. And by God's grace they will proclaim the Gospel and forget the numbers.