The Future of the Rural Church: Perspectives on Rural Evangelism in a German Context

By Werner, Dietrich | International Review of Mission, July-October 2007 | Go to article overview

The Future of the Rural Church: Perspectives on Rural Evangelism in a German Context


Werner, Dietrich, International Review of Mission


"Let the church be in the village!" That is a common saying in German, and one that indicates that no longer can it be taken for granted that every village will have its own church. Another German sating is used to describe a person who proposes something very arbitrary or comes up with a vague or farfetched idea, Such a person is accused of "not leaving the church in the village", i.e. not keeping together what essentially was and always will be kept together, which is symbolized by the village and the church.

"Is the church staying in the village?" This is the concerned question that has been asked in Germany during the last twenty years or so. For generations, people in Germany took it for granted that the church represented at least one reliable factor and stronghold of faith, one centre of trustworthy relationships and generations-long traditions in rural areas. This fundamental assumption is now being challenged and shattered. Profound demographic and life styles changes, together with the accompanying transformation of work-life balances, as well as traditional values and customs, have deeply affected the reality of church life. The essence and future of the so-called parochial system is being questioned in rural parts of Germany, as well as elsewhere in the country. This relates to the availability of church services, and the accompanying rituals such as baptisms, marriages, funerals and Christian teaching. In every local area, these things have acted as the bedrock on which has rested the folk-church tradition in Germany, which has its home in the mainline churches of German Protestantism.

We have heard a lot about the rapid processes of urbanization worldwide, and the growing importance of urban evangelism. Why is it important also to draw attention to rural evangelism in an international conference on the future of evangelism in the 21st century? Is it still important to look beyond the borders of urban Christianity and bother about the few Christians and Christian parishes left in the rural areas? Or is rural Christianity a phenomenon which soon will be regarded as something that belongs to the past, and is only preserved in some remote areas as a romantic reminder of a now-ancient Christianity?

It is clear that there are a number of substantial reasons why a concern should continue to exist for rural churches, and for them to be seen as an organic part of the future of the Christian church both in Germany (where an EKD commission is currently working on guidelines for the future of the rural church) and within the ecumenical debate on evangelism as a whole.

Firstly, a sizeable part of Christianity is going to remain in rural settings. In Germany in 2005, some 12% of the population lived in rural settings. That figure is expected to decrease to 9% by 2050. In Europe as a whole in 2000, some 27% of the population lived in rural settings, and that figure is predicted to fall to around 20% by 2050. The situation in other continents is different because in 2000 the rural population in Africa and Asia was about 65%, and this despite the rapid urbanization process taking place on those continents.

Secondly, despite demographic changes, at least in our context, an impressive and comparatively high number of beautiful and ancient church buildings, which are living witnesses of Christian tradition and the Christian commitment of earlier generations, are still located in rural areas. This poses the question of what kind of parish life is going to exist around these rural buildings in the future.

Thirdly, rural Christians and parishes are very sensitive about any attitude that views them with arrogance, treats them 'from above', or regards them as less important or attractive than urban people and places. Rural Christianity is well represented in our synods and commissions, and many decisions about the financial future of the church are evaluated according to how they will affect the rural as well as urban parts of our church.

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