Of the approximately 83 million inhabitants of Germany, about 45 million (approximately 54%) still officially belong to Christianity.
The German church landscape is essentially characterised by the two large state churches: the Roman Catholic Church with about 22 million members, and the Evangelical State Church with about 20 million members. The latter consists of several Lutheran, Reformed, and United Protestant Churches, their territories corresponding in many cases to the borders of the kingdoms, dukedoms, and principalities of the Napoleonic era.
Until the beginning of the 20th century, about 98% of the German population belonged to one of the two state churches. From the 1920s, however, the percentage fell – slowly at first, but with increasing speed.
According to a recent survey, just under 30% of existing members say they are thinking about leaving, and among younger members the figure is as high as 40%. The main reason given for leaving is the avoidance of paying church tax.
East Germany (formerly the GDR) occupies a special position. Here, where Martin Luther once lived, 45 years of socialist dictatorship have ensured that about two thirds of the population describe themselves as atheists. Among younger people it reaches about 75%, making East Germany one of the most atheistic regions in the world.
This figure also includes about 300,000 people (about 0.4% of the German population) who belong to one of the various so-called Evangelical free churches, which include such diverse theological strands as Seventh-day Adventists, Pentecostal and other Charismatic churches, but also more conservative strands, such as the Brethren movement or Russian-German Baptist churches, each of which has tens of thousands of members.
The number of Reformed churches is negligible; confessional Reformed Baptist churches (to which the authors belong) number only a handful in the whole of Germany.
However, membership figures do not say much, since in many churches most memberships exist only on paper, and, in our opinion, the majority of members of many churches are not born-again Christians.
This also applies to the Evangelical State Church which, although once founded by Martin Luther, has almost completely abandoned the Word of God in the last 100 years.
Born-again, Bible-believing Christians today can be found almost exclusively in certain Evangelical free churches.
As in many churches around the world, there are certain worrying trends among the Evangelical free churches (and other churches) in Germany that have been going on for decades and are finding their way into more and more churches.
These include a liberal turning away from biblical teachings perceived as inconvenient and outdated, especially relating to gender roles, marriage, and sexuality. Emotionalism is a concern: the denial of the need for sound biblical teaching and a turning to personal experiences, feelings, and impressions. Legalism is a further trend: misplaced trust in outward piety through keeping the commandments of men.
Because of this widespread disdain for the Word of God, we see a serious lack of understanding concerning the doctrines of the church, the sacraments, the sanctification of the Lord’s Day, and an increasing worldliness in both worship and personal life.
We consider the main reason for these developments to be a lack of knowledge and fear of God caused by sub-biblical preaching. Expository sermons and faithful presentation of the biblical gospel are very rarely heard from the pulpits.
In many places, God is only preached as a God of love, who is mainly concerned with man being happy in this world. The holiness of God, his law, justice, and holy wrath are rarely the subject of preaching.
Repentance and personal sanctification are hardly ever addressed; church discipline is rarely practised and thereby grace is cheapened. We regularly receive inquiries from brethren all over Germany as well as Austria and Switzerland who, despite intensive searching, cannot find a faithful church in their area.
On the other hand, there are also small but encouraging developments.
For example, in recent years there has been an increased interest in sound theology, especially among younger Christians. This has often been kindled by Reformed sermons found on the internet, and aided by the founding of German publishing houses which translate sound books (such as works by the Puritans) into German. The founding of new churches is also an encouragement.
Recent events and developments
Since March 2020, many churches have found themselves in a major crisis, which is increasingly degenerating into an existential crisis, because of different assessments of the Covid-19 pandemic and the government measures taken.
While church services were completely banned for several weeks at the beginning, they are now allowed again. Nevertheless, some churches have not gathered for more than a year. Where they do gather, worshippers are required to socially distance themselves, to wear masks throughout the service, to alter the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and not to sing praises to the Lord.
In many churches, two camps have formed: those who consider the state measures appropriate and demand that they be observed, and those who see the state measures as an unacceptable encroachment on the realm of the church, as well as (at least in part) a contradiction of God’s commandments.
These fundamentally different assessments are difficult to bridge and have already led to splits in several churches.
Another crucial event for Christianity in Germany occurred in November 2020. For the first time in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, one of the few Bible-believing pastors of the Evangelical State Church, Pastor Olaf Latzel, was convicted of hate speech and sentenced to a fine of €8,100 because he had made biblically-based comments about homosexuals. He was also banned from preaching for several months by the Evangelical State Church.
Even though the court decision is not yet legally binding, this is certainly a troubling development.
If the government’s Covid-related measures continue for much longer, we expect tensions in the churches to intensify further, leading to more church splits.
We also assume that many church pews that currently remain empty due to government measures will no longer fill up in the future, as many so-called Christians will have realised that they can just as well ‘worship’ online on their couch, or no longer need their faith at all.
Going forward, we anticipate a continued de-Christianisation of Germany. This will probably be manifested in further numbers of people turning away from the Christian faith, and in increasing rejection of Christian values in wider society as contradictory to the current zeitgeist promoted by the state and the media.
In light of the judgment against Pastor Olaf Latzel and state interference in worship due to the Covid-19 crisis, we believe that the state no longer respects churches’ right to self-rule. We fear that a new chapter of hostility against Christianity has begun – one which could lead to increased persecution of Christians for upholding biblical views, and increased vulnerability to the charges of hate crime.
In the last 100 years, Germany has gone from being the land of the Reformation to a land in need of reformation. From Germany the light of the gospel was once carried by missionaries to all nations, but it is now a dark land of godlessness, itself in great need of faithful missionaries to be sent to it.
In all this we recognise the almighty hand of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is bringing his righteous judgment on the sins of our people and also of the church. However, he continues to build, purify, and sanctify his church and tests the faith of his own in the fire.
In him alone – to whom all power is given in heaven and on earth – we also have hope for the future. May he grant that still many Germans will repent and believe in his name.
By Tobias Riemenschneider and Peter Schild. Pastors of Evangelical Reformed Baptist Church of Frankfurt, Germany.