“Forum Day” was launched with presentations prepared by six member churches of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe (CPCE) outlining the strategies that they themselves have adopted in an effort to adapt to changing circumstances. The CPCE is devoting one full working day's worth of sessions at its General Assembly in Florence to exploring potential forms of impetus for the future direction of the Protestant churches of Europe in spiritual, sociological and structural terms.
Laurent Schlumberger from the Reformed Church of France has ascertained a pressing need amongst people to experience witness first-hand: “Our contemporary societies no longer wish to listen to the preaching of churches. Instead they need authentic witnesses who can show them the important things in life.” This calls for a new, more contemporary approach to spreading the Word of the Gospel. His own church initiated a project that would return to the source of all belief, under the motto “Listen – God is speaking to us”, with the aim of listening to the Word of God in a fresh way, inventing new forms of listening together as a group.
“In the hardest of times our church was very popular”, explains Ana Palik-Kuncak from the Methodist Church of Serbia, in reference to the not yet so distant Balkan Wars. Indifference, hopelessness and the challenge of covering a territory incorporating as many as four different languages, are the most difficult issues that her church has to contend with these days, she says. “Renewal involves a new approach”, Palik-Kuncak observes, before explaining the specific measures that they have started targeting at the grassroots. Hers was the first church to provide a crèche in the whole of Serbia, for example. Their work for and together with the Roma population has also begun to bear fruit, for instance by guaranteeing a small but regular income by offering to pay the members of a local brass band a nominal fee for providing the musical tribute at funerals. “It might not mean that they all come running into church next Sunday, but it’s a first step in the right direction”, she says.
“Which circles of society do we reach any more?” Demographic trends, as illustrated by the example of the canton of Zürich in Switzerland, have started to present the Church with quite a problem. Congregations are shrinking and ageing at the same time. “Membership of the Church is no longer something that is passed down from one generation to the next”, confirms Gottfried Locher from the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches. “The churches now have to actively approach people.” The truth is that people's everyday lives and the life of the Church hardly intersect these days, and the churches are finding it difficult to identify useful inroads into new social circles. The famed “affluent professionals” - young, consumer-oriented workers and employees – or young people with a decidedly post-materialist take on life don't entertain any relationship with the Church. This was the finding of a study carried out by the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches in collaboration with the Institut Sinus. Even if studies like this might leave many questions unanswered, they can certainly reveal the most pertinent questions that need our attention, Locher says, such as: “What points of reference might really succeed in catching someone’s attention in everyday life or in respect of their own specific circumstances? What are these people’s real needs?”
The Evangelical Brotherhood, active in 10 different European countries, originally arose amongst migratory groups of craftsmen during the 18th century and was generally representative of the educated middle class. “It became known as Bourgeois Baroque”, Benigna Carstens told her audience. But this section of the population also began to wane at some point. “We are now tapping into new circles from within migratory movements”, says Carstens. The new members, mostly from Suriname in South America, are certainly presenting the otherwise rather conservative congregations with new challenges, like the fact that synod meetings are now a multilingual affair. But Carstens points out that “in our area our traditional catchment groups are seriously dwindling. I think the term osmosis would actually be quite appropriate.” One of her church's main plans for the year 2013 is to mark the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Suriname. Carstens’ message? “We need to find a language that life-long strangers to the church will understand!”
In stark contrast to other churches' issues concerning dwindling membership, John McPake from the Church of Scotland is actually confronted with a shortage of ministers. “The situation is only likely to get worse over the coming years, as three-quarters of our current ministers reach retirement age.” The Church of Scotland is endeavouring to counter this problem by introducing a new office in the form of “ordained local ministers”. It is hoped that as many as 50 such ministers will be successfully ordained for local service after completing intensive group training in tandem with hands-on experience.
The Protestant Church in Hesse and Nassau (EKHN) has opted for a “slightly daring” structural reform. The Church must be allowed to develop organically, explains Friedhelm Pieper. “A parish in Frankfurt city centre is bound to be challenged by utterly different issues than a close-knit village congregation.” On top of this, today’s society thinks and acts in increasingly mobile terms, the result being that someone’s local village or the town district where they live is no longer the absolute focal point of their life. This means that the local region, which in terms of the EKHN equates with the level of the deanery, could play a more significant role in the future, being best placed under these circumstances to identify and attend to the local requirements of the church. This implies that “central” control should be handed down to these regional offices, along with the appropriate resources, such as ministerial posts. The number of deaneries within the EKHN would be reduced at the same time, whilst taking care to ensure that their size still permits sufficient flexibility.
Forum Day will be continued with a podium discussion and the opening of the Assembly's World Café.