European Protestant churches share strategies for changing times
Six member churches of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe (CPCE) on September 24 outlined strategies they have adopted to cope with changing religious and social circumstances.
Representatives of the churches spoke at the CPCE’s 7th General Assembly, meeting in Florence, Italy from September 21 to 26, according to a CPCE news release. The strategies included: experiencing witness firsthand, reaching out to marginalised populations and immigrant communities, actively approaching people, creating local ministers and de-centralising church structure.
Laurent Schlumberger from the Reformed Church of France noted that “our contemporary societies no longer wish to listen to the preaching of churches. Instead they need authentic witnesses who can show them the important things in life.”
This calls for a new, more contemporary approach to spreading the word of the Gospel, he said. His church initiated a project that would return to the source of all belief, under the motto “Listen – God is speaking to us,” with the aim of listening to the Word of God in a fresh way, inventing new forms of listening together as a group.
Ana Palik-Kuncak of the Methodist Church of Serbia noted that “in the hardest of times our church was very popular,” referring to the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Now, she said, indifference, hopelessness and the challenge of covering a territory incorporating as many as four different languages are the most difficult issues for her church.
“Renewal involves a new approach,” Palik-Kuncak observed, before explaining actions targeting the grassroots. Hers was the first church to provide a creche in the whole of Serbia, for example.
Work with the Roma population has also begun to bear fruit, she said, for instance offering to pay the members of a local brass band a nominal fee for providing the musical tribute at funerals.
Gottfried Locher from the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches asked, “which circles of society do we reach any more?” Demographic trends, as illustrated by the canton of Zurich, have started to present the church with a problem: congregations are shrinking and aging at the same time. “Membership of the church is no longer something that is passed down from one generation to the next,” he noted.
“The churches now have to actively approach people,” he added. The truth is that people’s everyday lives and the life of the church hardly intersect these days, and the churches are finding it difficult to identify useful inroads into new social circles.
“Affluent professionals” or young people with a post-materialist take on life don’t entertain any relationship with the church. This was the finding of a study carried out by the federation in collaboration with the Institut Sinus.
Studies like this can reveal the most pertinent questions that need our attention, Locher said, such as: “What points of reference might really succeed in catching someone’s attention in everyday life or in respect of their own specific circumstances? What are these people’s real needs?”
Benigna Carstens noted that the Evangelical Brotherhood, which is active in ten European countries, originally arose amongst migratory groups of craftsmen during the 18th century and was generally representative of the educated middle class.
“It became known as Bourgeois Baroque,” she said. But this section of the population began to wane. “We are now tapping into new circles from within migratory movements,” she said.
The new members, mostly from Suriname in South America, are presenting conservative congregations with new challenges, like the fact that synod meetings are now a multilingual affair. But Carstens points out that “in our area our traditional catchment groups are seriously dwindling.”
One of her church’s main plans for the year 2013 is to mark the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Suriname. Carstens’ message? “We need to find a language that life-long strangers to the church will understand!”
In contrast to other churches’ issues concerning dwindling membership, John McPake from the Church of Scotland is confronted with a shortage of ministers. “The situation is only likely to get worse over the coming years, as three-quarters of our current ministers reach retirement age.”
The Church of Scotland is introducing a new office in the form of “ordained local ministers.” It is hoped that as many as 50 such ministers will be successfully ordained for local service after completing intensive group training in tandem with hands-on experience.
The Protestant Church in Hesse and Nassau (EKHN) has opted for a “slightly daring” structural reform, in which the church is allowed to develop organically, said Friedhelm Pieper.
“A parish in Frankfurt city center is bound to be challenged by utterly different issues than a close-knit village congregation,” he said. In addition, today’s society thinks and acts in increasingly mobile terms, the result being that someone’s local village or the town district where they live is no longer the absolute focal point of their life.
This means that the local region, which in terms of the EKHN equates with the level of the deanery, could play a more significant role in the future, being best placed under these circumstances to identify and attend to the local requirements of the church.
This implies that “central” control should be handed down to these regional offices, along with the appropriate resources, such as ministerial posts. The number of deaneries within the EKHN would be reduced at the same time, whilst taking care to ensure that their size still permits sufficient flexibility.
In other news, the CPCE’s governing Council elected a new Presidium. The 13-member Council does the business of the CPCE between General Assemblies and determines the direction of the theological and organisational work of the CPCE bodies and office. The three-member Presidium is chosen from within the Council and is in charge of the CPCE, which is based in Vienna.
The Presidium members are Bishop Friedrich Weber of the Protestant Lutheran Regional Church of Braunschweig. He will be leading CPCE’s delegation to the consultations between the Roman Catholic Church and CPCE that are due to commence in February 2013 in Vienna.
The Presidium also includes Klára Tarr Cselovszky, who leads the Department for Ecumenical and External Relations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hungary, and the Rev. Gottfried W. Locher, President of the Council of the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches.
Bishop Michael Bunker, of the Protestant Church A.C. in Austria, was confirmed in office as General Secretary for another term by the new Presidium. He has been in office since 2007.