Growing up, my family moved a lot. I encountered many different corners of the United States, and even lived in Canada for a short time. From an early age, I knew what it was to be an outsider looking in and to have to gradually adapt to new surroundings. You might assume, then, that I’m well accustomed to transition; but actually, transition has never come easy.
Just a few years ago, my family and I moved to Germany to support local pastors making disciples and planting churches. European history and philosophy was my focus in university, and although we visited Europe several times, we still wondered what it would be like to live in a European culture. Granted, Western Europe may seem similar to parts of the U.S., but it can actually be worlds apart.
Christianity once shaped the culture of Germany; but, as I moved there, I wondered if it had any lasting influence. I wondered if, instead, we were moving into a post-Christian culture. If so, I wondered, what would it mean for us?
The Meaning Behind the Way We Live
In a Christian culture, the majority of people have been shaped by Christianity, and it shows in how they live their lives. Post-Christianity, just as it sounds, is a culture that was once shaped by the Christian faith and worldview, but has since moved away from the primacy of such a worldview. Europe is often labeled “post-Christian,” and several noticeable trends in German culture stand as a witness to that truth.
In a post-Christian society the Biblical story that once shaped culture is no longer the narrative that gives meaning to life.
One noticeable shift in German culture is in how people use their time. How they do so reveals what they care about. The calendar in Germany looks fairly similar to the American calendar, save a few more holidays and differences in the school year. Because of the church’s past influence, Sunday is a special day in German culture, but it’s no longer because people gather for worship. It’s now merely the day to spend time with family and friends and to rest from a week’s hard work.
The German countryside is littered with thousands of tiny villages and quaint church buildings. Metropolitan areas packed full of people boast beautiful, gigantic cathedrals. But on Sundays, those buildings are mostly empty. Over 82 million Germans have somewhere else they’d rather be than gathered with a local church. Many church buildings have even been converted altogether to uses other than their original intent.
Another consideration within Post-Christian cultures pertains to the way people interact with others, which is deeply connected to how they view creation, specifically the human body. Through our senses, our physical bodies help us to experience life. In Germany, the body is primarily viewed as part of the animal kingdom (think naturalistic evolution). Apart from the Christian understanding that humans are made in the image of God, the body is no longer revered.
The resulting prolific obscenities in advertisements, red-light-infested city districts, legalization of assisted suicide, abortion practices, and fewer couples getting married and having children, all testify to the reality that humanity has lost its grandeur as the pinnacle of God’s good creation. People have forgotten their purpose to bring God glory.
Our relationships also have a profound influence on who, or what, we look to for meaning in life. Many people in Germany once found meaning in their faith, but the role of the church in daily life has changed dramatically. Most Germans pay a tithe to either the Catholic or State church through their taxes so that the poor and needy are well taken care of by the church through the State.
Otherwise, people may be baptized in a church to make their Oma (grandma) feel at ease. They may be even be confirmed and married in a church building; however, afterwards they may never darken the door again, apart from attending Christmas or Easter Mass. Most see Christianity as out-of-touch and a source of backwards thinking.
The Stories We Tell
A third consideration among Post-Christian cultures is that the stories people tell and the way they react to others’ stories are a brilliant marker of the movement of the culture. They are the medium that helps people make sense of life. They communicate truths that might not otherwise be stated. So, when we think about understanding cultures, one of the most important things we can do is listen to their stories.
I once had some friends over for a party here in Germany. As I relayed a story of my own, one of them replied, “Wait…you don’t actually believe Jesus is God, do you? The Trinity?” Then he laughed like he was watching a funny cartoon. He thought my story was ridiculous. I wasn’t offended—he’d actually never met anyone that believes what the Bible teaches. But his response was indicative of something larger in the culture here.
The good news is that a church on the margins is uniquely positioned to reach those outside the camp, just like Jesus did.
In a post-Christian society the Biblical story that once shaped culture is no longer the narrative that gives meaning to life. The gospel is long gone. Jesus has become part of an outdated argument or distant figure haunting the past. The church has become a shadow of a once-flourishing community drawn together by the gospel. The story of God’s grace through the cross has become an echo of the past, and the remnant of the church has drifted back to the margins of culture.
The Power of a Church on the Margins
The good news is that a church on the margins is uniquely positioned to reach those outside the camp, just like Jesus did (Heb. 13:12). In Europe, Christians have an opportunity to serve as representatives of a true counter-culture. We’ve been formed in Christ for the renewal of society through the transformation of people by the gospel of truth and grace.
Germany bears the marks of a post-Christian culture, to be sure. And though I’m saddened that a place with such a rich history of faith—this year marks the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation that began here—has forgotten it’s heritage, I’m all the more driven and encouraged by Christ to point Germans back to Jesus. And history has shown that a church on the margins is a powerful thing.
Josh Baylor serves as a church planting catalyst sent out by Sojourn Community Church (Louisville, Kentucky) for the IMB in Germany. He and his wife, Meghan, live in Düsseldorf with their two sons and two daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshBaylor.
For more information on working among post-Christian cultures, particularly European cultures, check out the European peoples page.