The state of Christianity in Germany
The United States of America certainly is not a Christian country. But compared to Germany, there are—by the grace of God—many more Christians in America than in Germany. Statistics indicate that 35% of Americans go to church at least once per week. In Germany, only five percent of the population goes to church regularly, and most of them are Roman Catholics.
A recent worldwide survey on belief in God showed that formerly socialist East Germany is the most atheistic region in the world. In no other part of the world do fewer people believe in a supernatural reality. But the western part of Germany, where I grew up together with my three younger siblings, is not in a much better state.
While the eastern part of Germany is dominated by atheism, most people in the west are either part of the Roman Catholic Church or the Protestant church, the latter being a merger of the large Lutheran church and the much smaller Reformed church, both of which came out of the Reformation. Especially this Protestant church has become dramatically liberal over the past 200 years, so that even in the west, less than 4 percent of the Protestants attend church on an average Sunday morning.
My family’s story
My parents both grew up in this Protestant (state) church, but left the church during their time at college. They both eventually joined non-denominational evangelical churches that were founded in various places as a reaction to the liberal theology that had done so much harm to Christianity in Germany. My dad attended a nondenominational seminary, and during that time he heard about Reformed theology for the first time. He started to like it, and so he decided to pursue his doctoral studies at a Reformed Seminary in the Netherlands. During the time that he spent there (during the early 1980s), he read a lot of Reformed literature and after a while he became a member of one of the confessional Reformed congregations. After getting married, he moved to Germany and finished his dissertation here. Since there was no conservative Reformed church in Germany, he remained a member in the Dutch church.
In those days, he was called to serve as a lecturer/professor in a newly founded evangelical seminary in Giessen, where we still live today. So in the late 1980s, our young family (I was 2 years old) moved to Giessen, where my dad taught Christian Ethics and Dogmatics for the next ten years.
Despite the poor religious condition in Germany, there were some who would not tolerate the increasing liberal direction of German Protestantism. Quite a few of these people decided to leave the state church during the 20th century, and they started to found free churches. About one percent of Germans belong to those free churches, which had a very high view of scripture when they started.
The seminary where my dad taught was closely linked to those free churches, and though we as a family were members of the Dutch church, we started to attend one of the free churches in the area, since the Netherlands was a 4-hour drive away. But my parents became increasingly unhappy with the situation. From their founding most of those free churches had been mildly Baptist and Arminian. It was rather an assumed Arminianism due to the fact that Calvinism was virtually non-existent in Germany. However, the people who attended these churches wanted to be serious about their Christian life and held to a high view of scripture. But in the middle of the nineties, the problems in those free churches became much more serious. Suddenly the churches decided to change from services marked by Biblical worship to entertainment and music-driven programs. The free churches wanted to become “cool” places and forgot about their actual duty—to give glory to God, faithfully to preach the word, and thus equip believers for their everyday lives.
A new seminary and a new reformed church
The problems in the free churches also affected the seminary where my dad had been teaching for the past ten years, so at the end of the nineties he left the seminary together with two of his colleagues, and founded a new seminary: The Academy for Reformational Theology. This seminary has always been very small and has undergone many struggles during the past thirteen years. But despite its small size, it continues to operate today.
But let me concentrate on another part of our work – the church.
My dad not only decided to leave the seminary, but the sad state of the churches also made my parents think about starting a new Reformed church. They set out looking for likeminded people, which was not too easy, but in 1999 we started to gather as a group of believers in the living room of our house. The original group consisted of 2 families and a couple of my dad’s students who had become interested in Reformed theology during their studies.
Starting a church is not easy. After a couple of months we found a school that would allow us to worship in their facilities on Sundays. We had a couple of visitors, and some of them stayed, became members, and are still members today. But there were also disappointments. After two years, a family that had been part of the church from the beginning left. But since others came to join the gatherings, we were able to constitute as a regular church in 2002. My dad and another man from church were ordained as elders; the newly founded church numbered about 15 members. The church took the name Confessing Evangelical Reformed Congregation in Giessen.
One of the difficulties for our small church is the fact that we do not have a pastor. Since my dad is a theology professor, we have an elder who is educated in preaching and teaching, but his work does not allow him much time for working in the church.
That is also the reason that we are gathering only once on the Lord’s day. In addition to that, some families drive an hour to get to church, and it would be too far for them to travel back and forth twice.
But on the other hand, we did not want to miss a second message, so the elders decided to have a short break after the service, when the congregation has a time of fellowship with cake, cookies, juice, and coffee. After this break the people come together again for half an hour where they are taught one Lord’s Day out of the Heidelberg Catechism. This is not actually a second service, since we do not have an extra liturgy for that, but it has proven to be valuable, since the Catechism, despite having been written in Germany, has been forgotten almost entirely in our country.
Over the years the church grew slowly but steadily. In his sovereignty God added to the church several families and individuals. That did not go without disappointments. Some people joined the church and later left over minor issues. One family that was very integrating and hospitable was forced to leave Germany and go to Canada because they wanted to home-school their children, which is prohibited in Germany.
In addition to our Lord’s day gatherings, we soon started other activities during the week. Every other Friday night we have a Bible study in which we study books of the Bible in a verse-by-verse manner. On the Fridays in between, we gather as young people (ages 14-25) for our own Bible study. We start by singing some hymns, and then a person from the group explains a passage from scripture to us. We then break up into small groups, in which we discuss the passage that we just looked at. After that we gather again, speak about our discussion, and end with a time of prayer before we have a time of fellowship, talking, and games.
Catechism classes are offered for children between 13 and 15 years old, and there are also gatherings for younger children during the week. Even the elderly people gather once a month for Bible study and fellowship.
In 2004 we were able to rent some rooms in an office building in Giessen, which we can use now for the entire week. Since then the church has grown to about 30 members and some regular attendees. This is not large, but it is a witness to the grace and faithfulness of our God. We are very glad to be able to gather every Lord’s day in order to worship the Lord by singing and praying, and in order to have the word of God faithfully preached to us.
Up to this point I basically have given you facts about Germany, the Christians who live there, and how our church was founded. Let me now tell you about my own journey, and how we came into contact with the PRCA.
When my parents first told me they were planning to start a new church, I was 11 years old and definitely not happy about it. For the past couple of years, we had attended a large evangelical free church in Giessen. I had a lot of friends there who were my age, and many of them were my classmates at the evangelical school next door that I attended. Leaving that church was a tough experience for me, since there was no one from my age group in our new and small gathering.
Sitting through sermons that lasted up to an hour seemed boring to me. But over the years I realized that what I considered boring was the primary tool that God used to give me a firm foundation not only for my spiritual life, but also for the questions that I faced during my everyday life. It was a slow but steady process of understanding not only the basic truths of the gospel, but also of understanding why the Reformed position on the various questions that serious Christians disagree about is the biblical position. After attending our catechism class, I decided to make confession of faith and thus became a communicant member of the congregation at the age of sixteen.
However, I do not want to be silent about the struggles that I also went through. Understanding more and more about the gospel was accompanied by doubts and struggles that most young people experience in those years. But looking back, I am glad that I was confronted with the word of God several times a week, even if I did not appreciate it in the beginning. It was this word in connection with the Holy Spirit that kept me from leaving the path that leads to life.
Just a few months after my confession of faith, I had a few weeks off from school for the purpose of going to an English-speaking country to improve my English skills. One of the elders in my small congregation had some contacts with the PRC and he arranged for me to come to Grand Rapids for four weeks in the fall of 2004.
The first four weeks of my trip to America I stayed with a couple from Alaska that I already knew. But coming to Grand Rapids meant arriving at a place where I did not know one person.
My fears proved to be completely needless. I was very well received by my host family and those four weeks were a great experience. I was allowed to attend Covenant Christian High School and to go to whatever class I wanted. I spent time at other peoples’ houses, made friends at school, attended catechism classes, and worshiped at Hudsonville PR church every Lord’s day. For most of you it is probably not extraordinary to worship with five hundred people, but for me it was something special.
My time in Grand Rapids was over way too fast. In addition to meeting so many great people, the trip served to confirm my Reformed convictions. For the very first time I considered whether I might become a minister one day. This was not only the start of my friendship with people in the PRCA, but over the years my siblings and other people from church have visited PR people in the area. At the same time official contacts developed between the PR contact committee and our elders, which showed that our churches are very similar in conviction in spite of some differences. Since 2004 I have returned to Grand Rapids three times, and it has always been a great time of Christian fellowship and encouragement.
In Germany I graduated from high school in 2007 and went on to the university to study Latin and History, which I finished this past summer with a masters degree. I am now preparing for a one and a half year program at a public school here, at the end of which I will be a state-licensed teacher. As much as I liked what I did at the University, I became more and more convinced that I wanted to go to a theological seminary. Since there are so few Reformed believers in Germany, I decided to have a regular profession besides it, because our church and the few other Reformed circles in Germany are too small to pay for a minister. So I started my studies at the seminary where my dad teaches in 2011, which will probably take me several more years since I will attend part-time. But I am very glad for this opportunity.
Although my studies keep me busy, the elders have given me more and more responsibilities in the church over the past years. This includes teaching a catechism class and leading the young people’s meetings on Friday nights. For the future I hope to go farther in this direction, taking over more responsibilities as I get older.
I hope that you have gotten some insights into our small church world in Germany. If you have questions feel free to contact me via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Facebook (Jochen Klautke). It would be great if you prayed for our small church and the work being done in Germany!