This week’s edition of Die Zeit is fronted by a picture of a large twin-towered German church sinking under the waves of modernity. The huge banner headline reads: ‘Ist die Kirche noch zu retten (Can the church still be saved)?’ The sub-text asks: ‘How Christianity is struggling for survival in modern society’ and promises an interview with the elderly Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Küng.

The church in central (Germanic) Europe is undoubtedly going through interesting times. This has (in my humble opinion) much to do with the rapid changes in receipts from Church Tax and a wrestling with the cultural and missional implications of such changes. If ‘membership’ of your church is denominational and your tax payments buy you your baptism, wedding and funeral, to what extent are evangelism or other elements of mission perceived as necessary or urgent?

Of course, this isn’t the whole story. The Church Tax in Germany has enabled the church to provide amazing (and amazingly high-quality) social provision for children, young people, elderly and sick people. It’s reach has gone beyond the limits of ‘what is good for the interests of the church itself’ and seen care of society as it’s remit. Few would talk this down.

But the world has changed, fewer people attend the churches and the taxes a reducing. rather than simply ignore this, the EKD under Bishop Wolfgang Huber bravely launched a decade of reform leading to the 500th anniversary of the launch of the Reformation in 1517. But even this wasn’t a desperate measure. It was a measured response to change – something churches have to do in every generation.

And I am writing this in Basel where we are staying with friends and looking forward to an ecumenical festival across the city tomorrow. Here the situation is similar to that in Germany. Church buildings have been converted for other (mainly cultural) uses. And therein lies my problem with the Zeit assumption that the church is preoccupied with it’s own survival. Die Zeit is asking the wrong question.

Of course, the church’s role in society has changed, is changing and always will keep changing. Yes, the Christendom model is dead and there is a need for reform in many respects; but this is not primarily for the sake of the survival of an institution. Dietrich Bonhoeffer got it right when he wrote:

“Jesus ruft nicht zu einer neuen Religion auf, sondern zum Leben. (Jesus doesn’t call us to a new religion, but to life itself)” (Gedicht an Eberhard Bethge, Tegel, 18 Juli 1944 – Das Ausserordentliche wird Erreignis: Kreuz und Auferstehung, S.63)

The survival of the church is not the end to which the church aspires. But elements of all churches – in England as well as Europe – need to recover the vision for which they exist in the first place: to be a reflection of the Jesus we read about in the gospels for the sake of the world we live in now.

Now, there are those in England who like to think (in a rather uncommitted liberal way) that if we could only shake off the institution of the church, we could create a new way of being church without all the stuff we find embarrassing or shaming. I recognise that what I am about to say goes wholly against the grain of the self-fulfilment, instant-gratification culture we now inhabit, but such attitudes are naive. They ignore the massive achievements of the church in our cultures – intellectually, socially, educationally, politically, morally, etc. – and collude in the selective memory that encourages costless fantasy.

The Christian Church, in the UK as well as here in Switzerland and Germany, needs to recover confidence in the church itself and the vocation of the church to serve its society. Show me what difference the National Secular Society or the British Humanist Association makes to local communities in every corner of the country. Show me how those Christians who want to re-invent church in terms of like-minded people joining together to re-write theology in their own convenient image change one iota of their local community for the better. If you want to do that, you need buildings, people and organisation, vision, commitment and enormous patience. All things the organised church has and uses for the sake of the society around them. The organised church has a unique vocation and needs its people to start having confidence in it again – not for its own sake, but for the sake of those it serves.

So, survival of the church is not our task. Shaping the church to better be able to serve our communities in the name (that is, according to the character of) Jesus Christ is the challenge. It isn’t an easy one, but it is more interesting and exciting than simply trying to keep an institution afloat. Or, as Stephan Schaede, Director of Evangelische Akademie in Loccum puts it (in the Zeit article):

Church is interesting for society if it says what sort of a society it expects – rather than asks how it can fit into society.</

Ps. I just discovered that the headline in Die Zeit is actually the title of Hans Küng's new book!

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