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Luther's spiritual heirs face an uncertain future.

Declining membership and dwindling income have Germany's Lutherans worried about the future.

And so, in search of inspiration, some 300 church members returned here, the town where Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in 1517, for a workshop to map out their future. Attendees brainstormed on media branding, structure, financing and how to make the church that Luther built viable for the 21st century.

They met as part of a "Future Congress," officially titled "A Church for Freedom: Perspectives for the Evangelical Church in the 21st Century."

"Freedom" seemed a part of every sentence uttered at this conference, but "finance" might have been a more appropriate catchword.

Church attendance has dropped across Europe, and Germany is no exception. What matters in Germany are the automatic paycheck deductions--taken from everyone who is a registered church member--that are used to fund church operations, regardless of how often church members attend services.

About one-third of Germans belong to the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church in Germany. The worst-case scenario shows the church's current membership of about 26 million shrinking to 17 million by 2030.

Thies Gundlach, head of the church services division, said financial questions clearly sparked the current debate, though not all church members see the coming threat. The main issue, however, is shaping a 21st-century church now, while the church is solvent, instead of being forced to make rash decisions later, he said.

Wolfgang Huber, Berlin's bishop and head of the Council of Evangelical Churches of Germany, released a 100page paper last July laying out problems and suggesting fixes. Proposals include:

* Consolidating or merging churches.

* Unifying districts (Germany's 23 church districts in no way line up with the borders of its 16 states), which has proven remarkably controversial.

* Making do with fewer ministers and hiring more professional laypeople for outreach programs.

Predictably, Huber's suggestions sparked debates. The proposal to merge districts--some of which have charters dating back to 1815--from 23 into 12 was not well received. Huber said he expected the controversy, and issued the proposals as little more than a conversation starter.

By NIELS C. SORRELLS

Religion News Service

Wittenberg, Germany
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Title Annotation:WORLD
Author:Sorrells, Niels C.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Mar 9, 2007
Words:353
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