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Bell tolls for Germany's churches

Many are being shut or converted to other uses as congregations shrink.

April 22, 2007|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BRIEST, GERMANY — The tombstones in the graveyard are polished, but the village church, which counted only three Sunday regulars, was cracked and water-stained when it was sold for $10,000 to an aspiring filmmaker, who hung a poster of musician Lou Reed beyond the vestibule.

The altar was stripped. Icons and pews were carted off with the steeple bell. It's hard to be precise about when things started going bad, but the church's slide began after old pastor Giebler died during the German reunification and a once secure village frayed in the whirl of newfound freedom.

"When the political change happened, there was a huge atomization," said the new owner, Juliane Beer, who as a child attended services here with her grandmother. "This village had a grocery, a post office, buses going by, but now it's all gone, kaput. A church has been on this site since the 13th century. The only thing left are memories. Six years ago, a friend of my grandmother's died in this church during Christmas Mass."

Beer looked around. Her bed is in the choir loft and there's an espresso machine where the hymnals used to be; the arched windows are clear but they rattle; cobwebs shimmy on fading whitewashed walls.

"Jesus is gone," she said. "I'd like to turn it into a studio for artists."

The village church is struggling for relevance in modern Europe. The continent is rooted in Christianity, but devotion is ebbing and church attendance has dropped steadily for years. In Germany and other nations, Protestant and Roman Catholic churches are selling properties or leasing them to other religious groups, especially in cities and villages where structures are left vacant as shrinking congregations merge.

Secular conversions

Churches have been reinvented as restaurants, coffee houses, clubs, apartments and music halls. Some have kept their frescoes and stained glass; others have been de-sanctified, yet their unmistakable facades and architecture leave an imprint of the holy on even the most capitalist of endeavors.

The churches of Europe have endured wars, plagues and much else, and although the current crisis is likely to pass, the image of the church is being significantly altered.

South of Briest, past asparagus fields and cattle, Christiane Beutel, the pastor of the Lutheran Church in the fishing village of Plaue, opened a church ledger from 1650. Written with ink and quill and held together by tape, the pages note the baptisms and deaths and the works of those whose bones have since turned to dust in the cemetery outside.

"There's a trend in Germany and people are saying they don't want to devote themselves to anything fixed, whether it be a church or a political party," Beutel said. "They just want to live their lives and have fun. I think this comes from a collective disappointment that things didn't turn out like people thought and illusions were shattered after communism fell."

Tight church budgets mean Beutel's duties are many and scattered. She and two other ministers serve five churches in the region. Her congregations in Plaue, southwest of Brandenburg city, and nearby Woltersdorf has shrunk to 600 from 800 in the last decade. This mirrored a pattern of decline in population and prosperity: Thousands of steel industry jobs were lost, Plaue closed its last school two years ago, and the town's once strong band of 30 fishing families has dwindled to four.

A recent study by Dresdner Bank predicted that in the coming years, 50% of Germany's churches may close or be turned into other uses. The nation's Roman Catholic Church is expected to stop services in 700 of its 24,500 churches by 2015. Some of them, such as St. Laurentius in Berlin, are being rented to immigrant religious denominations. The Lutheran Church has sold a number of its churches to such groups, including a Serbian Orthodox community.

Declining population

Congregations slip away with each church funeral. Germany, a nation of 82 million people, has a low fertility rate that is unable to balance its rapidly aging population; government estimates suggest the working-age population will shrink by 21 million over the next two decades.

Other pressures on churches include secularization, villages emptying as people move to find work and a state religion tax collected from all church members, which keeps thousands from joining.

Meeting this year in Wittenberg, the home of the Reformation, an organization of mainline Protestant churches predicted that by 2030 membership would drop to 17 million from 25.6 million, and that annual income from the church tax, which helps support institutions, would be halved from about $5.4 billion to $2.7 billion.

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