When Aaron Köhler tries to talk to people in Cottbus, Germany, about Jesus, church, and faith, he can’t assume they know what he’s talking about.
Many in the city near the Polish border don’t know anything about Christianity. Köhler has had people ask him whether Christmas and Easter are Christian holidays, and if so, what they’re about. One time, he talked to someone at a local market who wasn’t familiar with the name Jesus. The person had never even heard it, that they could recall.
“That was crazy for me. In the ‘land of the Reformation,’ in a supposedly ‘Christian country,’ these people don’t even know the basic basics,” said Köhler, copastor of a church plant called Mittendrin (“In the Middle”).
According to the most recent data from Germany’s Federal Agency for Civic Education, more than 60 percent of Germans identify as Christian. A little more than a quarter say they have no religion.
Zoom in a little closer, though, and stark regional differences emerge. In the western part of the country—which includes Hamburg, Munich, Cologne, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, and Düsseldorf—three-quarters of the population identify as Christian. But in the east, the region that was a Soviet Union satellite state from 1949 to 1990, only a quarter of Germans are Christian, with nearly 70 percent identifying themselves as nicht gläubig, or nonbelievers.
Christianity is, of course, declining in much of formerly Protestant Europe. But eastern Germany stands out, even compared with other rapidly secularizing nations. Here, large swaths of the population have had no serious contact with Christianity for three generations.
“For decades, there was no prayer, no Bible at home, no church attendance,” Köhler said. “After all these years, people don’t know what they don’t know.”
The regional differences are easily traced to the division of the country after its defeat in World War II. The French, British, and American-controlled sectors in the west merged into the German Federal Republic in 1949. The Soviet-controlled East formed the German Democratic Republic, a socialist state with totalitarian leaders who suppressed religion. Although the efforts to stamp out faith were not as harsh in East Germany as they were in some areas of the Soviet Bloc, the effects were profound, according to sociologists Detlef Pollack and Gergely Rosta.
The Christian population in East Germany fell from about 90 percent in 1949 to only 30 percent in 1990. When the Cold War ended, the Berlin Wall dividing the historic capital city came down and the country was reunited. But Christianity in the former East just kept shrinking.
Simon Tarry, a British-born church planter with Newfrontiers, a network of evangelical, charismatic churches, said official statistics actually paint a rosier picture than the reality. Even for many of the one out of four who say they are Christian in the East, little to nothing in their lives resembles a vibrant faith.
“The scales of measurement are membership where people pay their church tax for marriage and baptism purposes,” he said. “Germany is equivalent to an unreached people group. You might think of the 10/40 Window, places in Asia or the Middle East. But a lot of places in Germany and Northern Europe are much more ‘unreached’ than elsewhere in the world.”
Newfrontiers has two church plants in the East, both in the Berlin area. The network has had more success in the West, like the Frankfurt area where Tarry is helping plant a church.
“It’s incredibly hard work to plant a church in Germany. It’s incredibly discouraging at times. It feels like really hard ground,” he said.
For evangelical church planters, this presents an incredible challenge. But also, because they are church planters, they see opportunities.
“There are really many opportunities,” said Dominik Lorenz, a church planter with the Union of Free Evangelical Churches in Vogtland, a hilly region in the eastern state of Saxony. “These people are looking for a second chance.”
There are no firm numbers on how many church planting initiatives have launched in the East since the fall of the Berlin Wall. None of the church planters who spoke to CT knew of a complete count. But church planters are there, talking to people about Jesus and attempting to live out their trust in the gospel.
The idea of people making any life decisions around church is so strange and countercultural, Lorenz said, that it piques curiosity and opens doors. He joined Herzfabrik (“Heart Factory”) in 2017. The plant was started the year before by Daniel Rudolph and a team of 11 people sent out by the Union of Free Evangelical Churches in Germany.
“While everyone withdraws in fear, we build bridges for encounters,” Lorenz said. “While many people look only to their own, we give generously. This relationship dynamic of the gospel, which is lived in everyday life, in homes, in families, in the workplace, has an enormous appeal here.”
In a region with around 70,000 inhabitants, Herzfabrik now has 120 members and an additional 250 people and 80 children who regularly attend services. Some of these are part of the 17 percent of the population who already identified as Protestant or “another Christian religion” in the official survey, but the church has focused on reaching nonbelievers. The staff talks about the temptation to pay too much attention to the needs and frustrations of Christians and “losing sight of those who are truly lost.”
That’s really the harder task for evangelicals in eastern Germany, according to Joel Ernst, a church planter in training with Mittendrin in Cottbus.
“You need patience here in East Germany,” he said. “It takes a long time for a skeptic to become a follower of Jesus. You need to know more than just the facts of these people’s lives, but feel the pain of it. The reality of it. Getting to know people in a deep way.”
Growing up in church in the western part of the country, Ernst said, he was shaped by a “church growth” mindset. He’s had to unlearn that in his training in Cottbus.
“If you have that model in mind and come to East Germany to plant a church, you’re going to end up frustrated quite quickly,” he said. “Being with people who have forgotten they’ve forgotten God challenged my view of what church culture is [supposed to be].”
At the same time, church planters in the region say they’ve had to adjust their view of nonreligious people. Tobias Klement, who grew up in western Germany, expected people to be hostile to Christianity when he joined Köhler to plant a church in Cottbus.
What he found, instead, was a mix of ignorance and indifference. People didn’t know the basic basics—or why they should care.
“It’s just not relevant to their lives,” he said. “They did not actively decide to be atheist. It’s just a normal thing.”
Klement and Köhler say they have learned that the work of spreading the gospel in eastern Germany will be slow. But they’re in it for the long haul.
“The Reformation didn’t happen in a day,” Köhler said. “And that’s what we are working and praying for here in Cottbus and East Germany: that God would come here and start a second reformation.”
Ken Chitwood is a writer and scholar of global religion living in Germany.
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