The Church in Outreach

Finding new ways to be Church in Germany

Christian Hennecke


Dr Christian Hennecke is head of pastoral mission in the Diocese of Hildesheim, and author of several books.  He reflects here on the effects of secularisation in Germany, which has been felt in other countries too; it has called for a deeper understanding and maturity on the part of the Church, but new initiatives are emerging that are already showing signs of great potential.
Some say that the crisis the Church is facing in our country is unprecedented; it has seen the re-organisation of all our parishes into larger pastoral areas, due to the diminishing number of clergy and faithful.

Hermeneutics and the need for conversion 

But that is because we see the Church as something 'fixed'  when really it is a living reality, freely given to us, that grows and changes, in a constant process of renewal 'semper reformanda'?

The Church is guided by the Holy Spirit in the Eucharistic logic of 'death and resurrection'; therefore, we have no need to grumble about the state of the Church or of a society which 'no longer believes'.  In fact, we are 'out of touch' when we say things were better in the past, because that was in a different era from the one we are living in now. 
Historically, the Church has always played a key role, particularly in Europe, in connecting society with faith - albeit at times dubiously (hands in the cookie jar!). She has been a strong influence on culture and society, but now, in this period of great change, it seems that a different experience, reminiscent of  the Old Testament, is coming into relief, the image of God's people, wandering in exile the desert.  As they journey towards the Promised Land, the prophet Isaiah recalls the great deeds of the Lord but then unexpectedly concludes with these words:

 'No need to remember past events,
no need to think about
what was done before
Look, I m doing something new
now it emerges; can you not see it?'  (Is  43, 18)
If we look more closely then, we see that God is asking of his people a profound conversion: He is asking them to change the way they have thought up to now; they must no longer dwell on the past, not even on those moments when He, the Creator, chose to intervene so closely in their story. Now they must look with new eyes, not because the past is no longer meaningful, but because He desires to meet them and speak with them in the present, in both His and our 'now-moment'. Unless we are rooted in His present, which is today, converting our hearts and minds, we will not be able to see His works, for it is not we who are making things new, but God, and these things are happening now.
So we must look at our present world and the Church too with new eyes; believing that God is as present now as He has always been, close to His People, leading them towards His Kingdom.  We will only discover his works if we do not waste time complaining that the Church is not what it used to be.  Instead, we must scrutinise the signs of the times certain of finding traces of his Presence, acting in the midst of humanity, and signs of the Church to come.
If we look at things in this way, adopting the 'hermeneutics' (biblical interpretation) that calls us to leave old ways behind and welcome change, we will find ourselves involved in God's wonderful continuing creativity, able to draw closer to the Church exactly where she finds herself today in post-modern Germany.

'Pilgrims' and 'newcomers' 

The first thing we will see, is that one of the most traditional ways of becoming a Christian is no longer around! - that of being brought up in a Christian home and  Christian environment, in which great care was taken to ensure that children and young people received a Christian formation before going on to join various Christian associations, groups and movements as well as going to Mass on Sundays.
A few years ago, French sociologist Daniele-Hervieu-Leger observed that 'practising Catholics’ would soon become a thing of the past, because today people are discovering the Gospel via new and varied routes rather than the more traditional ones.   
One group, perhaps the large majority, she calls 'pilgrims' because they are on their way and the other group 'converts or 'born-again' because God's love has touched and changed their lives.
In the case of the 'pilgrims' it is not that they 'don't believe', at least not here in northern Europe, but rather that they find it difficult to get 'access' to the Christian faith.  For them, the Church is still rather an odd, distant institution: they search for meaning in their lives, but not necessarily in an ecclesial or religious context.  They are open to new experiences and to spirituality, but without seeking God or the Gospel.
This reminds us that faith is a grace, not something we can achieve by ourselves. It will take longer today than it did in the past, for faith to grow and mature in these people, but it is not for us to try to force or put pressure in any way on their journey towards Christ.
Nor should we be surprised that many others, of all ages, have already 'got there' as their search for the Church and the Christian faith was sincere - not everyone wants to remain 'outside'!
However, the fact remains that, whether people are still on their way or already 'changed' or 'born again', where will they go from here? How will they find their place in the Church?  They have travelled a different road to becoming a Christian yet all the classic ways of belonging to the Church presuppose that we have grown up in the Christian tradition, which not everyone has. How then shall we look after them?
I remember a Protestant preacher, who had for some years been promoting a new initiative of evangelisation here in Germany, which thanks to the social media could be followed all over the country.  He had been invited to speak at a meeting organised by a Catholic church in my diocese and he said: 'If you run ProChrist here (the name of the initiative), many people will come along.  But has anyone stopped to think how to accompany these people once the initial preaching is over?  I can assure you that the way to look after these new arrivals is no different from a married couple who are preparing to welcome children into the world; they know that from that moment their lives will change.  So, my question to you who belong to this parish, is: are you ready to welcome new children into the faith? Then be prepared to change everything!'

Towards new ways of being Church

In my own diocese of Hildesheim, we have been coming together with members of the Lutheran Church in Hannover to look for new ways to live out our commitment to evangelisation. Since we shared the same missionary passion for Christ, we soon realised that we could face our challenges together.   
We travelled together to England, where for some time the Anglican Communion had been experiencing the collapse of its long-established traditional model of the Church, that no one ever imagined could be challenged!
During the 90's, the Anglican Church had promoted initiatives of evangelisation such as the well-known 'Alpha Course', a course in faith which had gained the participation of millions. 
However, once these courses came to an end, the many 'new Christians’ who had attended did not wish to join existing Anglican communities.  Instead, they became
fresh expressions of Church, finding new ways of shaping their faith, not by giving rise to lots of free Churches as the bishops had feared, but by a new process of 'ecclesiogenesis' (rebirth), within the very heart of Anglicanism, giving birth to new communities very different to existing canonical structures.
In 2004, after several years of patient observation and, to an extent, 'putting things on hold', the Anglican bishops went on to endorse these new forms of life.  The then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, spoke of 'fresh expressions of Church,' reinforcing the strong Anglican view that evangelisation should always be ' fresh' for every generation, fostering new ways of 'announcing'  and introducing new forms of life as part of a 'mission-shaped Church', which takes it's shape from the most varied contexts and places where the Gospel is being announced. 
He also coined the phrase 'a mixed economy of Churches', that does not seek to overlook the ecclesial life of the Church formed over centuries, yet welcomes the normality of diversity within its structures.  Neither old nor new are seen as one better than the other; what matters is to multiply the means of having access to the Christian faith, in a world that is increasingly diverse and distinct.
Two things will emerge: on the one hand, a profound missionary spirit with a genuine thirst for discerning the signs of the times and an earnest desire for prayer in order to understand God's Will in each situation with each group of people.  On the other hand, a spontaneity to live and be the Church wherever we are, with the people around us, with the courage to risk new unchartered ways of being Church. 

'Kirche hoch zwei' - A new dimension for the Church

The experience we shared with our Anglican friends greatly encouraged us and is now developing on two new fronts in our ecumenical collaborations back home in Germany. Firstly, we wanted to give a joint signal to the faithful of both our Churches, that highlights the need for real change, one which will  transform  the 'Gestalt' - configuration - of our Churches, and open the way to a greater diversity of expression and new communities, above all for those who encountering the Gospel for the first time.
We became aware of the presence of new communities, in new places, that we hadn't noticed before, within the ecclesial structures of the Church.
And so the idea came about to hold an Ecumenical Congress entitled quite simply 'Kirsch' (Church) - in which tradition and innovation, the old and the new, Catholics and Protestants, live side by side. Participation in this congress exceeded every expectation, and was fully sold out within just two months of the invitation going out.   We had not enough capacity for the 1,300 people who wished to attend the event live. Plus all the others who managed to follow it on Facebook, Twitter and live streaming.  A new type of ecumenism was emerging, with its roots in the Gospel and in a spirituality of communion not focussed primarily on dogma, but on the shared desire for mission and evangelisation.
The Congress itself (still available via YouTube channel 'Kirche hoch zwei and website address was an outpouring of enthusiasm, joy, and youthfulness, heralding new paradigms in how to be Church. The wealth of experiences and originality of ideas helped us to discover and live a new ecclesial dimension in each of our  denominations.
The Congress gave also life to a second initiative; an 'ecumenical movement' which in the coming years will seek to bring together efforts from all the different Churches, suggesting new ways of announcing the Good News and generating new types of communities.  A course will also take place to develop tools and methods for those committed to bringing much needed innovation to our ecclesial structures.

Ecclesiogenesis locally

The Anglican Church has not been the only one to inspire us towards new horizons. We have looked at other experiences too, such as those in Africa and Asia.  Similarly, contact with the Church in France has allowed us to see that a new Gospel culture is spreading fast, all of which remind us of Vatican II's vision for the Church in which new models of ecclesial life will blossom, which draw on a new understanding of the Church as a royal priesthood for everyone; and a new understanding of the relationship between the Church-and-the-world, that finds its expression in 'ecclesioprassi', that is, in a dynamic Christian way of living.   
So the scene that is set before us is one of small communities on the spot that form a network amongst themselves, centred around the Eucharist.  This vision of the Church as  a communion of local communities full of diversity, will naturally require a new understanding of the task and role of the parish priest.
It's all about change, a real change in the mindset of all Christians, particularly for those who are called to be priests.  All these processes, which are rooted in profound spirituality, will naturally require time and effort.  What we can learn in the meantime, especially from the Churches in Asia and Africa, is that without a farsighted pastoral vision we will not be able to accomplish that authentic renewal of ecclesial life which our increasingly post-modern world demands.