Each year as October 31 approaches, my thoughts return to a Lutherland tour nearly 30 years ago, when Tamara and I joined a group of American Lutherans to visit the sites of the Lutheran Reformation. This included three days inside East Germany where some of the most important sites were located. One in particular I will always remember.
On this particular day we visited the house where Martin Luther was born, restored by the East German government for the benefit of the thousands of wandering Americans interested in marking the 500th anniversary of Luther’s birth. Given the state and appearance of East Germany at the time, gray and impoverished and firmly in the iron grasp of an atheistic communist government, the house was like a Luther’s rose amid thorns, the only house with fresh paint and blooming windowboxes that we saw in Eisleben. Already the kind of thing you remember for 30 years.
But still not as memorable as our walk next door to St. Peter’s Church, where day-old Martin was brought by his parents to be baptized 500 years earlier. Its exterior showed the wear and grime of the passage of time. Its interior was massive, cold, museum-like. After being shown the portion of the baptismal font said still to survive from the day when Hans and Margaretha brought their day-old son, we had opportunity to walk through the church and view the chancel, with the pastor of the congregation serving as our guide.
In the chancel, along the wall on the left, we saw a row of eight chairs. I remember asking their purpose. We were told that those were for the congregation that meets on Sundays. Apparently more than enough chairs. Eight chairs would suffice. So sad. So memorable.
That memory again came to mind two weeks ago while reading an article in the October 14 St. Louis Post Dispatch, “Churches Seek to Reclaim the Religiously Unaffiliated.” The article by Tim Townsend covers a presentation at a local library by an apparently well-known “hero to the growing number of young Americans who are rejecting institutional religion,” Harvard professor Steven Pinker. A goodly number of these young Americans were in attendance.
The article also discussed a set of statistics released a day earlier by Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, reporting that one of every five Americans today is a “none,” as Pew names them, persons claiming no affiliation with any religion. That number increases among young Americans under age 30: one of every three. Pew reports:
- Males comprise 56 percent of nones.
- A third of those under 30 declare themselves to be nones; this number drops to 9 percent among those age 65 and older.
- Among these nones, 71 percent are white, 11 percent are Hispanic, 9 percent black, and 4 percent Asian.
- While 27 percent of nones say there is no God, 68 percent say that they believe in God or a universal spirit, and 55 percent identify themselves as either spiritual or religious.
- Nones lean heavily democratic and are more likely than the nation as a whole to support abortion rights and gay marriage.
Perhaps most importantly, the Pew report found that its latest numbers show an increase of five percent since its last report in 2007. Which brings us back to those eight chairs in the chancel and Pinker, the Harvard professor. He believes they are inevitable. In his thinking, Europe always leads and the West will be catching up.
Whether that is so remains to be seen, but we certainly are noticing this trend away from the church among us and probably also in our families. We have no 500 years of theological undermining and a persecuting East German government to blame. But we do have a massive onslaught on the minds and hearts of our young people from many quarters, reminding us of words from Luther’s hymn: “Though devils all the world should fill, all eager to devour us.” We will need to do what we can to stop their preying upon our young people and to help this young generation as much as we can, but we will also take comfort and courage from Luther’s words that follow: “We tremble not, we fear no ill–they shall not overpower us….The Word they still shall let remain.”
Ray Hartwig, LCMS Secretary