In Wittenberg, Germany, on Oct. 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church. It was an act that sparked the Reformation and changed the world.
But fast forward almost 500 years and today only one in five people in Wittenberg, the birthplace of the Reformation, say they are Christian. The United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany is struggling with declining membership after 40 years of religious oppression.
That’s one of the reasons why leaders of the German church have asked the ELCA, including Arden Haug, an ELCA pastor and missionary, to work with them as they strive to renew their church and their congregations.
The ELCA’s most recent partnership with this German church started over 12 years ago with the opening of the ELCA Wittenberg Center. The center hosts educational programs for visitors and encourages them to experience historic sites important to Lutheran identity.
Invitation to return
Now, the focus is shifting to inviting German Lutherans back to church. Twila Schock, director for ELCA Missionary Sponsorship, says that the ELCA and the German Lutheran church, like many mainline Protestant denominations, are facing similar challenges around membership.
The German church has an important story to share with the ELCA, Twila believes. “This is a historic church,” she says, “and it’s gone through the same cycles that churches in our country have. It’s important for us to work together, and especially important that we have an ELCA missionary in Wittenberg, because we can support each other. We have a lot in common and a lot to learn from each other.”
In 2008, The United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany decided to declare 2008-2017 the “Luther Decade.”
“The Protestant churches in Germany as well as other Protestant organizations, museums and diaconal organizations have together created themes for the Luther Decade — 2012 is ‘The Reformation and Music.’” says Arden, And they have invited their Lutheran brothers and sisters from around the world to join them in an examination and celebration of Lutheran identity and heritage.
The decade started in 2008 when Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the ELCA and then president of The Lutheran World Federation, opened the Luther Garden in Wittenberg where 500 trees from around the world will be planted before the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.
Today, 102 of the trees have already been planted. Arden feels the garden is “a wonderful project which celebrates the worldwide Lutheran communion.”
He remembers the most recent trees he helped plant were for the Lutheran churches in Korea, Kenya, Sweden and El Salvador. The ELCA, two German Lutheran congregations, Luther Seminary and the Slovak Zion Synod were all part of that tree planting service in Wittenberg.
Arden says the 500th anniversary of the Reformation offers a unique opportunity to welcome Lutherans everywhere back to the church. It’s also a time to celebrate the diversity of the global Lutheran church. “We had varied paths, but we have all emerged from the same tradition,” he says.