Witnessing to Christ in a Secular Culture

Editor’s Note: This Cape Town 2010 Advance Paper has been written by Michael Herbst as an overview of the topic to be discussed at the Morning Plenary session on “Making the Case for the Truth of Christ in a Pluralistic, Globalized World.” Responses to this paper through the Lausanne Global Conversation will be fed back to the author and others to help shape their final presentations at the Congress.

1. This happened during a school conference in the city of Greifswald, Western Pomerania (former GDR). There was a parent representative on the school council who was completely unchurched, and was interested in the cathedral of Greifswald. He knew the church from various visits and now asked me the very telling question: “Do worship services still take place here occasionally?” The question was telling, because on the one hand it expressed the assumption that religious life in this city had perished long ago. On the other hand the question signalled that, although the religious life of this church has not perished, it happens in the corner of those who are faithful to the church anyway, and does not really become public.

2. Mission never happens without a context: God’s mission will take its own shape in every context. Thus we have to look at the East German post-socialist and post-Christendom context in particular.

One of the main challenges is certainly the stable situation of unchurched people in Germany: “By this we mean people who have not belonged to any church for three or four decades and ‘who have forgotten that they have forgotten God.’ In the East of Germany, they make up 70-75% of the population, which is about 10-12 million people; in the West, they make up 25-30%, which is about 15 million people.” (1) In 1959, the Pomeranian Church still had 700,000 members, whereas now only around 100,000 people belong to the Protestant Church, which is about 20% of the population.

It is a church that is still shrinking. However, it does not shrink so much because its membership is declining but because of migration to the West and because its membership is getting older. It has been like this for at least a generation. Many leave, mainly those who are gifted and nimble with their tongues. We speak about “brain drain”, the loss of the elites. It is a small church in a minority situation and surely no longer a “Volkskirche”.

3. When it comes to the matter of truth, the East German situation is ambivalent. On the one hand people experienced a strong meta-narrative during the GDR era. Marxism claimed to witness to a universal truth with a strong eschatology: the course of history headed for the paradise of communism. The Communist Party possessed ultimate authority in most questions of daily life, but also in questions of truth, meaning and ethics. This truth – being itself in a certain sense religious — included, as we will see, a vital anti-church appeal. It was part of the strategy to reject all religious convictions and to “inform” people that religion is nothing but “opium for the people”. On the other hand, this meta-narrative failed. In 1989 some rejoiced in the defeat of Marxism, others grieved for the loss of their ideological home, but most acknowledged the defeat of Marxism. The end of meta-narratives finds its very special expression in this context: many East Germans have lost confidence in any truth claim. “Never again”, they say! Their caveat against religious truth claims is twofold: their Marxist past makes them cautious when it comes to religion, their post-Marxist present when it comes to any truth claims.

4. In addition to that we must understand that this part of Pomerania has never been a flourishing spiritual landscape. Revivals only happened locally. After World War II, there was not very much left of the country and the church in Pomerania. What was spiritually inspiring was mainly the immigration from East Pomerania. These immigrants played a major role within the local churches.

The success of the propaganda of the GDR fell on ground that was well prepared by religious indifference and abstinence from church life. However, what was new was that atheism was now anchored above the level of the individual: Not only individual people are unchurched, but most parts of public culture, the educational system and civil places are unchurched as well. (2)

The marginalization of Christians by the regime of the Socialist Party belongs to history too. The politics of the reigning party was hostile towards the church and attacked it mainly where it hurt most: in education and lifetime support. In education, this happened with the fight against religious education and youth work. Education also meant to establish gradually an atheist picture of the world, which then functioned as scientific worldview, and to plant this into the minds and hearts of children and young people. This crop flourished, and for many people it is still part of their deepest beliefs today. And as for lifetime support, the socialist state created its own rites. The church lost its interpretive authority with regard to the major turning points in life, and the authority to support and counsel people from the cradle to the grave, because now the state was able to dedicate names (3), to turn young people into grown up socialists and to comfort people, more or less, in their last hour. Education and lifetime support were taken away from the church, and people were weaned from Christianity generation by generation. In addition, there were pressure, discrimination, and social disadvantages. It became expensive to remain a Christian. Socialist cities emerged, and church steeples were not to disturb their appearance. Some steeples in old cities had been blown up like the church of the University of Leipzig. Rural life was industrialized. The agricultural culture shaped by the church was finally replaced by socialist production cooperatives.

A new pattern of family emerged: the grandfather who had still been confirmed but then withdrew, the father who was never baptized, and the child for whom it is now normal not to belong to any church. The loss of the language of faith should not be underestimated. The grandfather still knew the Christian ABC’s, but did not pass them on to the father. However, some subversive grandmothers did it anyway. But most of the fathers did not have anything left to pass on. Children did not learn the language with which they could have learned to believe.

5. The “Wende” (4) in 1989 did not bring any change. The revival and revitalization that had been hoped for failed to appear. People did not return in droves; on the contrary, the church continued to shrink. Do people not become more and more spiritual? Do we not talk of the return of religion and the re-spiritualization of humankind? Well yes, but not here.  

It is not for nothing that former bishop Noack from the East German city Magdeburg says again and again: “Don’t fool yourselves. We ‘Ossis’ [people from East Germany] are immune against religion.” Despite all hopes, the East German variety of being unchurched is deeply anchored in the biography of many East Germans. Eberhard Tiefensee, philosopher at Erfurt University in East Germany, describes religious immunity: “East Germans don’t go to the Dalai Lama either.”

Within 50 years, a new normality has cropped up.(5) Before that, it was more or less normal to belong to a church. Now the opposite is normal, unquestioned, the model of the majority, with which the people in the East are brought up and live. These unchurched people come along with an atheism that is deep but not necessarily aggressive. This atheism comes with a far-reaching indifference toward the whole religious interpretation of life including the offers of the church.

We have to add here the enfeeblement of the congregations who are out of puff. Reforms of the structures are exhausting, because they usually mean it will become more difficult as the numbers decline and neither money nor power will suffice. The focus is more on maintaining what is there than on reaching out to those who are outsiders.

6. How can mission in such a context correspond to rather than contradict the original missionary, Jesus himself? What does the mission of Jesus of Nazareth look like, who declares: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21)? My thesis is: The mission of Jesus of Nazareth was the constant crossing of boundaries for the sake of the love of God.

In New Testament times, there was a clear code as to who was to associate with whom, and also who was not to associate with whom. Pious people were sure that they did God a favour when they separated from others and drew fine distinctions: separating themselves from the tenants of Roman tax booths, from women from the allegedly oldest profession in the world, from leprous people and Samaritans, from women, children and certainly all kinds of Gentiles. In their eyes, holiness was about separation: profane from sacred, holy from unholy, pious from worldly, outside from inside. But what does Jesus of Nazareth do? He is about inclusion rather than exclusion (6), and he draws inside the very people who are outside. Therefore, he crosses boundary after boundary. Worse still, he claims that there is rejoicing in heaven when the walls come down and when people with whom God had nothing to do and who had nothing to do with God – when people like this come home to the Father (Luke 15:7). And he claims that God is by no means honoured when we build walls and keep people from entering the Father’s house. From now on, to be holy means to cross boundaries, to connect with others and to welcome the very people who had previously been “outside the door”. In the eyes of Jesus of Nazareth, the greatest sin is not to be connected to those whom the Father loves, on whose misery he has compassion, and to whom he wants to grant access to his presence.

The companions whom Jesus had called to him saw this in their master. They were amazed. The person who in their eyes was the holiest person on earth was also the least exclusive and the most decidedly inclusive. Thus, the mission of Jesus of Nazareth also became their mission, and crossing boundaries became their passion. Jesus sent them to all, to the entire world, to all nations and peoples. He did not draw any distinctions anymore; becoming a disciple should be the privilege of all people.

This can be seen, for example, in the Apostle Paul. He is infected by the vision of Jesus, and is ready to put his own good completely on hold for the task of reaching people with the message of the gospel. He does not want to ask any longer: What is dear and holy to me, what is my tradition of living in the community of faith, what is my style of worshipping God? He wants to do everything that connects people to the gospel, and he wants to leave everything that could keep them away from the gospel, as long as it is really the message of Christ. He wants to become all things to all people so that by all possible means he might save some (1Cor 9:19-23).

So I can only participate in the gospel when I join in with its dynamic movement towards people who have never heard of Jesus and still live their dismal lives without connection to him. If I refuse to join in with this inclusive effort of the gospel, then I exclude myself from it. A church should be a community on the move, crossing boundaries and making inclusion possible. In theological language, I could say it like this: There is no mission without incarnation — at least, when this is about God’s mission. As the word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14), so the mission of the church of Jesus must become “flesh” and go where people are, overcoming social and cultural boundaries and immigrating into every social environment.

7. What does it mean to witness to the truth of Christ in such a context? I would like to suggest that the demise of a self-evident Christian truth claim is not necessarily a disadvantage. When people find faith under these new circumstances, it is always a very personal decision and conviction and not a belonging only due to tradition. But how can we witness to Christ when there is only one absolute (!) conviction – that there is no such thing as “the” truth? In this short paper I can only make a few short suggestions:

  • When the son of God was born as a baby child God decided to meet with humanity in a very humble way – as a human being among human beings. Again: “The word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). He still is “the” word, but he became “flesh”. There is a universal truth claim in a very humble presentation. His way to gain trust is serving people and asking them to trust his invitation. Paul says, “…we implore you…” (2 Cor 5:20). Christ himself abandoned the option of power and chose the option of loving, serving, telling, asking — “Please, grant me your trust”. From below he served and gained trust. The crucified Lord is the metaphor for our witness to the Gospel in an era that has proclaimed the end of all meta-narratives.
  • For Christian mission in East Germany this includes discipleship with a special meekness: neither can we deny our conviction that “there is no other name” (Acts 4:12) nor can we go back to a period in history where Christendom made sure that the Christian truth was self-evident and had prevalence. (And to be honest: our witness does not depend on such a position. For the longest period in history Christians did not have such a position!). We witness to Christ from below and with confidence. From below means: loving, serving the poor, telling the story and asking for trust. With confidence means: it is not the general prevalence of Christendom that empowers the Gospel, but the power of the Holy Spirit that brings the good news into the hearts of those who listen. Therefore the Christian church is not contingent on a privileged position in society.

8. There are East German Christians and congregations that follow this pattern. Good approaches can be seen that should not be denied or denigrated. The regular ministry in our local churches can have missionary effects – as long as it is fostered by Christians with the heart of a missionary. There is an opportunity to found Protestant schools, to show a new presence in the educational sector and to earn trust. Furthermore, if people in a village get involved with maintaining a church building, this can lead them to identify at least with the building where faith is expressed. It can also make people think when they get in touch with a Protestant care facility like a hospice and experience it as different. These are important approaches.

There might be even more chances, if diaconical and educational institutions, those caring for evangelism and those interested in church ceremonies understand themselves as a confessing community, focusing on winning unchurched people for Christ. For example, the East German theologian Ehrhart Neubert poses the critical question: “It should be researched whether most of the church staff in the East [of Germany] have a background that makes it difficult for them to see the mission to the unchurched as a major challenge.” (7) Here we have a major problem: In some places we are not only not able, but we even do not want it.

Special missional activities make an impact: The project “Neu anfangen” (“starting anew”) succeeded exceptionally well in reaching unchurched people in a Pomeranian city (Loitz). Every household in this region with a published phone number was called and offered a small booklet with testimonies from the region. A volunteer would personally bring the booklet to their front door if they accepted the offer on the telephone. They would then be invited to a series of evening discussions. A different approach: Twice a year, about 200 women meet in the cafeteria of Greifswald university for “Frühstückstreffen für Frauen“ (“breakfast meeting for women”). Many of them are unchurched. They have breakfast together and listen to a talk on a contemporary issue from a Christian perspective. Fellowship and shared meals are very attractive and important for Pomeranians. In several places, there are “Seeker services” which entice people to come to church – new forms of services with a short piece of drama, modern music, and a sermon with a thematic focus. Not least, several congregations are having very positive experiences with missionary nurture courses. In a short-run project lasting 6-7 weeks, interested people get to learn the tenets of the Christian faith and to discuss them with Christians. Most of these activities seek to offer easy access with a low threshold and most of them are short-term offers. They tie in with themes that query modern vital issues from a Christian perspective. Attendees neither need to be especially educated nor pious. The courses normally take place in a hospitable setting, allow first and fresh experiences of church, and invite attendees to seek for more. A few people are reached by public relations work. But most are reached by personal relationships. The local pastor can invite people when he is known as trustworthy. Even more so, church members can invite other people when there are connections with a bit more depth and unchurched people do not have to suspect that the invitation is more about missionary success than about them. If all works well, then activities like this build bridges to the rest of the life of a church. Very often though, this turns out to be a problem as well, since many congregations are not very much accustomed to hosting formerly unchurched newcomers. More steps need to be taken. It is a long journey to faith!

In some places, the start has to be from scratch. We see entire areas that are hard to reach. It is part of socialism’s aftermath that its intention to create “cities without God” proved to be very effective in some places. This is especially true for the city-districts containing the typical East German architecture with large grey concrete housing blocks. On average, the number of church members here is below 10% of all inhabitants in the district. Even worse, in Bergen-Rotensee (Isle of Rugen) we find that those who are still officially church members have turned their back on church and conversely the congregation does not know them either. Congregational fellowship has vanished from Rotensee, not to mention missionary endeavours. There had to be a completely fresh start here. A new congregation shall grow with the help of a young minister (8) who sets up contacts with local institutions of welfare services, with schools and clubs, and most of all with individual people living in Rotensee. He himself lives next door to those he seeks to reach with the gospel. Diaconical work and evangelistic outreach have to go hand in hand. It is also important for us that worship services are taking place in Rotensee. We expect a lot from word and sacrament, from prayer and worship, even if people do not at first recognize it.  

© The Lausanne Movement 2010

  1. Hartmut Bärend: Kirche mit Zukunft. Impulse für eine missionarische Volkskirche. Gießen 2006, 43.
  2. Cf. e.g. Ehrhart Neubert: Konfessionslose in Ostdeutschland. Folgen verinnerlichter Unterdrückung. In: PTh 87 (1998), 368-379.
  3. Special rite to welcome new born babies – instead of christening.
  4. Peaceful revolution in 1989 when the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe came down.
  5. Cf. Wolfgang Pittkowski: Konfessionslose in Deutschland. In: W. Huber e.a. (Ed.): Kirche in der Vielfalt der Lebensbezüge. Die vierte EKD-Erhebung über Kirchenmitgliedschaft. Gütersloh 2006, 89-110, 89.
  6. Cf. Miroslav Volf: Exclusion and Embrace. A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation. Nashville 1996.
  7. Ehrhart Neubert: Konfessionslose in Ostdeutschland. Folgen verinnerlichter Unterdrückung. In: PTh 87 (1998), 377.
  8. Burkhard Wagner, a young theologian from Saxony.