Evangelical Influence Grows among German Lutherans

A Report from the “Church Day” in Hanover


Evangelical Christians are no longer a mere lame excuse on the fringe of the biennial Lutheran "Kirchentag" (Church Day) church convention. That's the opinion of the German evangelist Ulrich Parzany. Erhard Eppler, a prominent Social Democratic politician and chairman of this year's Kirchentag agrees: "Only six years ago it was a self-evident truth that evangelicals did not attend ‘Kirchentag’." The Kirchentag, initiated in 1949, has traditionally been boycotted by evangelicals due to its alarming amount of theological pluralism. This year's convention, held in Hanover June 8-12, hosted 140,000 primarily young persons. A major bone of contention has been the "Possibilities Market", which this year offered 515 more-or-less church-related groups of the most diverse and conflicting persuasions an opportunity to peddle their wares.


For the first time in decades, the Hanover Kirchentag featured a major distinctly evangelical nucleus. In the domed auditorium of Hanover's congress center, the “Spiritual Retreat Center Krelingen" sponsored in cooperation with the local Evangelical Alliance meetings primarily evangelistic in nature.


"Also, as in previous years, evangelical groups such as Inter-Varsity and Campus Crusade were incorporated into major activities and played an unmistakable role within the "Possibilities Market". Even syncretists described this year's Kirchentag as "pious", but it was hardly pious in an evangelical sense. Nevertheless, Ulrich Parzany's Bible studies did attract crowds of nearly 3,500 listeners and the largest Bible study led by the moderate Jörg Zink drew 21,000.


"Even though he had been roundly criticized by other evangelicals for his participation, the founder of Krelingen, Heinrich Kemner, minced no words in describing the situation of his own Lutheran church: "The church is asleep and snoring and God's alarm clock will need to clang loudly before she will awaken and return to her actual topic." In an interview, Parzany added that many statements mentioned at the Kirchentag "cause me to wail", yet one should cry only such tears "which Jesus shed over Jerusalem". He observed that the evangelistic-minded are "torn-up inside". On the one hand, they cannot in good conscience reject a classic opportunity for reaching many thousands.


Yet, by doing so under Kirchentag auspices, they endanger long-time evangelical relationships. The Baptist journalist Wolfgang Müller pointed out that evangelical absence "would only double the wretchedness” of the Kirchentag. Pastor Kemner has even greater evangelistic efforts waiting in the wings for future Kirchentag sessions."


The vocal exchange among evangelicals concerning participation was also felt elsewhere. During the mass closing service, reference was made to those who had remained home out of “fear or conceit". Chairman Eppler responded to the evangelistic push by asserting that "the convinced do not need to be convinced anew"; rigorous theological uniformity would only bring about the "death of the church".


"Even though this Kirchentag was less political than previous ones, its most prominent topics were nevertheless political. A year ago, the "Moderamen" - a principle governing body of the West German Reformed Federation - had declared the matter of nuclear deterrence to be a confessional one in the tradition of the Confessing Church. This position is illustrated by Dorothee Sölle’s statement: “You cannot serve both God and the Bomb." The Reformed declaration spoke of an ill-qualified "no without any yeses" regarding weapons of mass destruction, and it was precisely this phrase which appeared on the 80,000 violet scarves sold by peace activists during the Kirchentag.


A mass peace demonstration was officially incorporated into the Kirchentag for the first time, yet the politically explosive atmosphere of Hamburg in 1981 was absent. Apparently, the election victory of the Christian Democrats in March has dampened any hopes of impending the stationing of new Pershing 2 missiles on German soil this fall. But the poignant and despondent groanings of the affected were manifold. East German church representatives such as Manfred Stolpe pointed out repeatedly that the stationing of further missiles would halt the process of East German church-state and East-West rapprochement.


It would be unfair to label the Kirchentag "anti-American". The appearances of Ernesto Cardenal, the Nicaraguan priest and minister of culture, did prove that he is in fact becoming a mystical hero for very many of West Germany's youth, and any speaker attempting to defend NATO was confronted with catcalls. The theologian Walter Jens commented that "Williamsburg is the inverse of Nazareth". But on the other hand, American peace activists such as the Mennonite John Howard Yoder, Jim Wallis, Norman Birnbaum and Rimbert Weakland, the Catholic archbishop of Milwaukee, were received warmly."


"Erhard Eppler countered conservative protests by assuring that a “no" to weapons of mass destruction is no more political that a "yes". Interestingly, the peace-prize holding French professor Alfred Grosser branded any attempt to found appeals for disarmament on solely religious grounds as "pure clericalism".


"Peace activist Heinz Eduard Tödt did reap applause when he called upon his audience to "respect the strict limits of loyalty” to the government. An unforeseen major topic of this Kirchentag involved abortion. Neither faction cloaked itself in glory: A militant group of pro-lifers refused admission to the Possibilities Market resorted to co-opting each press conference for its own agitative purposes. In a much uglier scene, 150 feminists took over a church service held by pro-life groups and hoisted a sign reading: “If Mary had gotten an abortion, she would have spared us this.” The 300 pro-lifers retreated to the lawn, only to be interrupted once again by stink bombs."


During a Bible study, the evangelist Parzany struck a rare note by condemning both abortion and genocidal weaponry. He later added, that he "cannot stand selectivity concerning God's commandments”: Political Christians praise the Sermon on the Mount to the hilt, yet conveniently overlook God's commandments concerning sexuality. Though Parzany himself is a pacifist, he strongly refuted any notion of elevating the nuclear issue to a confessional one: "Social ethics cannot be allowed to tear us apart." This, he felt, would need to be an important stance for the church in the face of a conceivably hot autumn. Missiles should not become the center of our faith, he stated. "Only Christ can be our shibboleth.” In a society ripping apart because of political strife, "we can be an example by holding on to one another in love" despite our political differences.


Bill Yoder

Berlin, 14.6.1983


Appeared in “Christianity Today” near Chicago on 7-15-83, 1.040 words.


Note from November 2021: "Williamsburg" refers to the G7 Summit in Williamsburg/Virginia from May 1983. Except for Ulrich Parzany (born 1941), Alfred Grosser (born 1925) and Jim Wallis (born 1948) virtually all the persons named in this article are no longer living.