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29 January - 6 February 2001
Potsdam, Germany

4 February 2001

Declining participation hurts German churches, though speakers express hope for revitalization, WCC Central Committee told

Faced with declining participation, German churches - Protestant and Roman Catholic - are searching for ways to spread the Gospel more effectively in an increasingly secular society. Speakers outlined the challenges and expressed optimism in a February 2 plenary session at the World Council of Churches Central Committee meeting in Potsdam, Germany.

Many in the international audience are confronted with similar issues in their own church contexts.

Nearly one-third of Germany's 82 million citizens do not belong to any Christian church, said Rev. Tim Kuschnerus, ecumenical officer for the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), a unified church. About one-third are members of the EKD, one-third belong to the Roman Catholic Church, and small numbers are members of the Orthodox Church or other Christian denominations, he said.

Even more striking are the numbers of people who attend church in Germany, which averages about 4.2 percent, he said, though nearly one-third of all church members attend at Christmas. And in the former East Germany, near three-fourths of all citizens have no church affiliation, Kuschnerus said.

"For the churches in Germany, the question of their mission task has become important once again," said Bishop Dr Walter Klaiber of the Evangelical-Methodist Church in Germany. "Our great challenge now is to voice God's 'yes' to people who don't know anything about God or may not want to know."

In Berlin, three large churches began an effort to welcome people back to church. Most are not completely unchurched, having been baptized or confirmed before leaving, said Bishop Dr Martin Kruse, former chairman of the EKD and a former Central Committee member. But, he said, some church leaders must learn to welcome people back to a relationship with Jesus Christ first, with little emphasis on bureaucracy or paying German church taxes.

"Often, it's the churches' own fault when you treat people with little respect," he said. "People want a personal relationship with the church, one that's not too official."

A sign of hope in Germany is the "Kirchentag," a large festival of faith, focused on worship, Bible study and participation, said Bishop Dr Margot Kässmann of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hanover, Germany's largest regional Protestant church. Kässmann is former general secretary of the Kirchentag and a Central Committee member.

Kirchentag, held every two years, has attracted as many as 120,000 people. "The church renews itself in Kirchentag," Kässmann said. "(It) is a movement to help them read the Bible again."

Another sign of hope was the "Christ Pavilion" at World Expo 2000 in Hanover, she said. The EKD and the Roman Catholic Church sponsored the pavilion, which drew some 1.8 million people over a five-month period. Some 240,000 people participated in worship and prayer, Kässmann said.

"I conclude from this that if the church sets out to go where the people are, lowers the threshhold and invites people in, then the people will come," she said. Kässmann emphasized the point later, saying spirit and enthusiasm about the Gospel may be waning in the church, but the opportunity for church renewal is within the church itself.

The next World Expo is in Japan, and she proposed a similar space for the churches.

Heike Bosien, EKD and Central Committee member, said for her and other young people born into today's "secular world," churches must find new models for ministry to be effective. Well-educated people with secular experience can bring new skills to the church, she said. Churches must focus on their priorities and review their mission constantly, Bosien said.

"It is not only Sunday which indicates who belongs to the church," she said, pointing out that many people participate in the church at other times.

Bosien said she became interested in the ecumencial movement through her experience with the church in El Salvador. There, she said, the church was often the only place where the truth was spoken. The experience of other churches can be enlightening and serve as an ecumenical bridge to build enthusaism for the church, she concluded.

Commitment to diversity is important to church vitality, said Rev. Dr Angelique Walker-Smith, National Baptist Convention USA, in response to the presentations.

Another audience member, Rev. Ofelia Ortega, said she attended a Kirchentag, and there is much people from the northern and southern hemispheres can learn from each other at such an event. Ortega is moderator of the WCC Education and Ecumenical Formation Team and is a member of the Presbyterian Church of Cuba.

Photos from the Central Committee

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 342, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.