Lessons from the Church in Germany: Post-Christianity
*Editor’s Note: As a missionary in Germany for a decade, Brett Seybold has been a student of the trends of post-Christian Europe and how these trends affect the church in North America. Although Brett loves Germany, his sober assessment of the German relationship with biblical Christianity is realistic and contains many lessons for the North American church.
Q: What makes Europe such a hard place for Christian missionaries?
It’s because it’s post-Christian. In Germany, the average person isn’t engaging in regular Bible study, but he’s been taught negative higher criticism of the Bible in school. In Europe, we need to be able to address this critical view of the Bible which is trickling down from the education system and universities. It is what has opened the door to a spiritual vacuum in Europe which is now being filled by Islam. Muslims see what’s going on and are saying, “Your own scholars don’t believe in your book.”
Q: How has a post-Christian Europe influenced America?
That critical view of the Bible is coming to America very quickly. We’re often sending our Bible college professors to these universities, and we’re getting progressive professors back in our Bible colleges, and our colleges are struggling because they’re married to abstract theories and not evangelism and discipleship.
I’m having a hard time explaining this to Christian leaders here in America. If we don’t figure this out, more churches are going to die in America. This progressivism comes into America and we tend to not want any confrontation. We end up chasing after the culture and embracing everything—LGBTQ, Critical Theory, the Social Gospel. A lot of that starts with negative higher criticism from Europe.
These compromises make us like the fat calf ready for the slaughter. We’re typically not in the Word, and we often don’t know what we believe, let alone why we believe. I’m tired of seeing people going progressive. We need to get back to discipleship. Getting to know God. The fruit of the Spirit transforming us. Those are what change people.
Q: Let’s talk about the church in Germany. How’s it doing?
One indicator of how things are going is that a lot of cathedrals have turned into either mosques or museums.
There’s a small remnant of Bible-believing Evangelical Christians. As far as I know, it’s got the highest percentage (2-3%) next to England (5-10%). If you throw in the conservative Catholics who believe in God, the number goes up. But church membership is a completely inaccurate picture. You’ve got people who are members of Catholic and Lutheran churches (although these are declining) for whom God has nothing to do with their daily lives.
I’ve heard of pastors in these churches saying they don’t believe in the Resurrection, deity of Christ, miracles of Christ, or the moral obligation to follow His teachings. I know some really good preachers and youth pastors there, but it is so hard to win people to Christ in the post-Christian culture. On average, you’ve got to spend seven years or more to lead someone to Christ.
In Germany, you’ve got religious freedom, so you can at least have religious dialogue. But people just don’t go to church. They might come to a Bible study or a Christmas Eve service, but you’ve got to find excuses to be in their life. It’s got to be one of the slowest mission fields in the world.
The culture is also very progressive. It’s basically the sexual revolution with very little Bible-believing population to engage it. They fully embrace everything that is liberal. Nude beaches. Most fathers put their daughters on birth control by age 14 or 15. In youth magazines, they have articles teaching girls how to perform oral sex. In schools, sometimes sexual education classes involve passing out sex toys. Often a couple has one kid, after which they’ll get married if they decide to stay together, or the mom will go on welfare with the dad uninvolved. A lot of people get together, have a kid, and break up. Taxes are high, it’s a good economy, and you can live a halfway decent life on welfare.
Q: What are some turns that explain how Germany got here?
I would go all the way back to the Protestant Reformation. Alister McGrath wrote Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, in which he explains that if you give everybody their own Bible in their own language, you will have a bazillion different interpretations. After that, the Lutheran church is going to stay solid for a heartbeat. In many ways, the medieval Catholic theologians were able to stay more committed to the Bible for longer.
Meanwhile, the Protestant Reformation gave birth to the Enlightenment because there is no restraint once you locate the authority in the hands of the people instead of the Bible or church. You’ve got theological and confessional freedom which is good, but it’s a double-edged sword.
Still, I wouldn’t have done it otherwise if I were Luther. The Catholic church was in a rut and had gotten away from Scripture. It’s not surprising that so many fell away. After all, you’ve got politics married to the church going back to the 400s. How many Europeans from 400-1500 were Christian simply because it was declared upon them? I remember asking myself while in Germany, Have these people ever actually heard the gospel? Obviously, there’s also good: you have German Protestants who started doing overseas missions. During the medieval time, there are very few Catholics doing missions.
Q: And then liberalism…
By the 1700-1800s, you still have pious Lutherans and Catholics. But the German negative higher critics eventually took over the religious departments and Bible curriculums, and the churches for the most part became thoroughly progressive.
During a class on faith and science, I found a collection of documents called Essays and Reviews by British theologians who were writing in 1860 after the 1859 publication of Origin of Species, reacting to his influence. They were progressives, and they were absolutely singing Darwin’s praises. It’s clear from these essays that theology had already gone progressive before biology did. His biological theory may have been based on field research, but it was also part of a larger paradigm shift. Deism was already looking for an excuse to become atheism, and Darwin gave it to them. You would see atheism take off after Darwinism, but the deism born through the Enlightenment and negative higher criticism of the German theology departments were paving the way. Darwin threw a match on the gasoline. Not long after that, Nietzsche comes along.
Another wrong turn: If preachers in the pulpits had stood their ground and said, “No, we believe in the Resurrection, etc.” they wouldn’t have been overwhelmed by negative higher criticism. You can ignore it like most American churches have done, but it’s only a matter of time before it overwhelms you. Or you can stand your ground and do apologetics. I don’t see any other choice.