In Martin Luther's Church the Pastor Asks: Where Have All the Protestants Gone?

Pilgerweg "Sankt Jakobus" in Lutherstadt Wittenberg Jens Wolf/picture-alliance/dpa/AP

Pastor Johannes Block can consider himself Martin Luther's successor. He's the vicar of Stadtkirche St. Marien zu Wittenberg, Luther's own church. The church is the St. Peter's Basilica of Protestantism.

Here, Luther preached his incendiary sermons against Vatican corruption that led to the Reformation and the rise of the Protestant movement. It is where Protestant pastors were first ordained.

But on a typical Sunday, Block looks out over a mere 50 to 100 people in the pews: a tiny number in a city of 135,000, especially one whose official name is Lutherstadt (Luther City) Wittenberg. Indeed, nowhere in Germany is the share of Protestants lower than right here in Luther's homeland.

According to Detlef Pollack, a professor of religious sociology at Münster University, 4 percent of east German Protestants attend church regularly today, compared to 10 to 15 percent in the 1950s. Between the 1950s and the end of Communist East Germany in 1980, Protestant church membership there dropped from 80 percent of the population to 25.

The Lutheran (Protestant) church reports that membership in the former East Germany has even dropped below that figure now. In the state of Saxony-Anhalt, where Wittenberg is located, only 13.8 percent of the population belongs to the Protestant church; in neighboring Thuringia, the other main part of "Luther country," the figure is 23.6 percent. In a western state like Rheinland-Pfalz, by contrast, 30.5 percent of the population are Protestants, while 44.5 percent are Catholics.

"People thought the church would grow after the end of communism, but it hasn't," said Block. Some 4,600 Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt residents cancel their church membership each year, while some 13,000 die. The 1,000 persons who join the church each year cannot compensate.

"In the German Democratic Republic it was difficult [for pastors] to be accepted in society, but people were aware of you," said Diethard Kamm, a veteran pastor who serves as an assistant bishop in charge of the area.

"Belonging to the church meant taking a stand, to say, 'This is what I believe in and I take the consequences.' Today people think, I'm lord of my own life, why do I need the church? But in times of crisis, for example when the Iraq war began, our churches are full again."

Here is the paradox: Under East Germany's Communist dictatorship, where churchgoing was frowned upon, congregations were larger. Indeed, the Protestant church and its pastors and members were arguably the most important factor leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

"In [East Germany], the church was a home for those who didn't support the regime, and everything the church did had public significance," said Christine Lieberknecht, Thuringia's prime minister, a Christian Democrat who served as a pastor under the Communists.

As a teenager in the late 1980s, Jana Fenn attended a Christian youth group in Jena, East Germany because, she explained, "You could say things there that you couldn't say in school, and you learned things there that you didn't learn in school."

But one day, Fenn said, her teacher wanted a chat: "She asked, 'What do you do on Friday evenings?' I said I went to the Christian youth group. Then she asked who else was there and what we did." Even though attending the youth group meant Fenn and her friends were exposing themselves to official repercussions, they didn't let their teachers intimidate them.

But today Fenn no longer belongs to the church. "I go to a service every now and then, but the church doesn't have a role in my life," she said. "It doesn't really stand for anything anymore. I could just as well join Greenpeace."

Added Pollack: "Catholics criticize their church more vocally than Protestants theirs, but they also feel a very strong connection. Protestants don't feel such a strong connection. The Protestant church is seen more as an institution that runs daycare centers and provides social services."

Tolerance and acceptance - who could criticize such benign values? That's exactly the Lutherans' problem. "People don't know what exactly the church represents," said Pollack. "It's having a hard time differentiating itself from other organizations within civil society, from trade unions or political parties."

In fact, a remarkable number of Protestant pastors are enjoying successful political careers in Germany: President Joachim Gauck; Saxony-Anhalt's culture minister, Stephan Dorgerloh; Lieberknecht's deputy, Christoph Matschie; the former Green leader Antje Vollmer. The European Parliament now boasts a Socialist German pastor, Jürgen Klute. Even Chancellor Angela Merkel is a pastor's daughter.

How different from the 1500s, when the energetic Bible scholar and Augustinian monk Martin Luther launched his highwire verbal attacks on Rome, accusing the Catholic Church of corruption and selling indulgences. After Pope Leo X excommunicated him, the German firebrand went into hiding at Wartburg Castle - also in Thuringia - where he translated the Bible into German for the first time.

Today the castle is a popular tourist destination, where staff regularly repaint the spot on the wall where Luther is said to have thrown his ink pot to chase the Devil away. So is the church door on the Palace Church in Wittenberg, where Luther nailed his 95 Theses, documenting unethical practices in the Catholic Church.

Paradoxically, Luther country has seen tourist figures rise thanks to the "Luther Decade" that will end in 2017 with the 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses. As a result, on Sundays up to 1,000 joined the regulars at Pastor Block's unadorned Lutheran shrine. "Luther is to Wittenberg what Mozart is to Salzburg," he said.

But after the visitors leave, the 807,000 local Lutherans have to fill the pews in their 3,927 churches and chapels. That's a mere 205 parishioners per church, and almost four churches per pastor. Block faces an existential dilemma: Is he primarily a tourism officer at a Luther theme park, or should he focus on being the shepherd of a small local flock?

"This is the mother church of the Reformation," he noted. "Being a local parish and a tourism destination often presents a split, but we have to continue Luther's tradition."

How to grow this dwindling church is, of course, another matter. Ilse Junkermann, the bishop in charge of Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt, sees great potential in church music: "Half the members in our church choirs are not church members," she noted. "The music of Bach, for example, is like a course in the Christian faith. And being in a choir gives you a community."

While Pope Francis is enjoying global popularity, pastors like Diethard Kamm continue their heavy lifting. Despite the travails, Kamm says he still loves his job.

If he met the Father of the Reformation today, he reflected, "I'd say, I disagree with some of the things you wrote, in particular with your opinion about the Jews. But thank you for the Reformation."