Detlef Pollack, a sociologist of religion, describes in this guest commentary the effects of demographic change on the churches
Nowadays, when talk in public turns to the church, it is above all the cases of sexual abuse that are discussed; these, along with the attempts by those higher up in the church to hush things up, and the resulting wave of people leaving the church, all cast doubt on the church’s ability to survive. It is not only the scandal arising from cases of abuse that is responsible for the large numbers of people leaving the church - other factors play a role, such as indifference to religion, alienation from the church’s teachings, and people’s insistence on their own religious self-determination. But quite apart from these issues, public opinion overestimates the significance of this wave of people leaving the church as regards the instability of its membership levels. Demographic change will be just as important, if not more so.
In order to keep membership at its current level, it is not only the losses arising from departures from the church, but also the losses resulting from deaths, that will need to be made up through baptisms and people joining the church. The churches have not been able to do this since the 1960s. In 2020, the Catholic and the Protestant churches each lost just over 200,000 members who left. Also in 2020, deaths alone accounted for a loss of more than 300,000 members in each of the two churches. In comparison: the number of children baptised in 2020 in the Protestant church ran to about 150,000; in the Catholic church it was only around 100,000.
In addition, the number of people joining the Protestant church has been about 40,000 for some years now; the Catholic church does not attract more than 10,000 per year. In other words, the annual loss of around half a million members in each of the two churches is offset by no more than 200,000. The greatest losses are the result of deaths, and church membership will continue to decline as a result, and even accelerate, regardless of developments in the trend of departures from the churches. The reason for this is the fact that church members are much older than the average age of the population as a whole.
The church has long recognised the problem of demographics and talks about it especially from a financial point of view. An analysis commissioned by the churches in 2019 - the so-called Freiburg Study - showed that church membership will more or less halve by 2060, and so will the churches’ financial strength. The lower the income from church tax, the less personnel the church can employ - and that will accordingly reduce the ability to carry out church work, from church services to childcare facilities and social work. This in turn will further diminish the churches’ profile. A self-referentially increasing process of minimisation will make itself felt.
But is this at all important, from a religious or theological point of view? Are numbers the important thing in faith - or is it not rather the inner attitude alone which counts? Indeed: might it not even be an advantage, from a theological and religious point of view, if the half-hearted depart the church, leaving behind only those to whom faith really means something? Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, the former Chairman of the Council of the Protestant Church in Germany and Bishop of the Lutheran Church in Bavaria, declared recently that he did not mourn the fact that the church was no longer as it was in the past, when many people only belonged to it because it was tradition.
The statistics relating to religion hardly make such an attitude convincing. Bedford-Strohm should indeed mourn developments in the Church - and not only for reasons connected to the sociology of religion, but also for reasons relating to faith itself. This is because faith is more stable - and this has been shown in numerous empirical studies - when it is shared by many. It needs support from society, and it needs to be transported into society. What, especially, is decisive is childhood. Any child with a religious upbringing is highly likely to be religious as an adult. Children brought up without any religious influence seldom find faith as adults. But there is a crisis in Europe as far as passing on faith from one generation to the next is concerned.
These breaks in tradition between generations are just as significant as departures from the church, if not more so, as regards congregations becoming smaller. It is for this reason that a project at the "Religion and Politics: Dynamics of Tradition and Innovation" Cluster of Excellence - funded by the John Templeton Foundation, and headed by Christel Gärtner and Olaf Müller - is investigating the reasons for the weakness of the transfer of faith between the generations.
The cases of sexual abuse attack the church at its core because they cast doubt on the holiness it claims for itself. How influential demographic and socialisational processes are is less visible, but there are equally long-term effects.
Dr. Detlef Pollack is Professor of the Sociology of Religion and a member of the "Religion and Politics: Dynamics of Tradition and Innovation" Cluster of Excellence at the University of Münster.