A call to mission might not be the first thing that comes to a Presbyterian’s mind when thinking about Germany. Grand cathedrals, or perhaps the start of the Reformation, might be more common images.

But much mission work in a place with such a strong church background?

This past March, a group of eight students and one faculty member from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary had the opportunity to visit Germany through the World Mission Initiative, a fellowship of Presbyterians dedicated to developing mission vision, nurturing missionary vocation and cultivating missional congregations.

The trip took them to Berlin, Dresden and Wittenberg, areas deep within the former East Germany.

The group found that the present-day reality of Germany is much different from history, and it was that tension that drew them to Germany.

“We began our trip in Wittenberg. That’s where Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses and really began the Reformation, so that’s a part of Germany that was once very Protestant, really at the forefront of the Protestant movement,” said John Burgess, professor of systematic theology. “Then through the events of the 20th century it has ended up being one of the most secular parts of the world and one of the most secular parts of Europe.”

Under communist rule for 40 years after World War II, Germany was also under the rule of anti-Christian Adolf Hitler before the war.

“You have several generations of east Germans who grew up in an anti-Christian context,” Burgess said. “I think most people, it’s not that they’re anti-Christian even though Hitler and the communists were, but they just live their lives not needing the church. They don’t have any connection to the church and so they just have an indifference to it.”

In parts of eastern Germany, 10 percent or less of the population are formally affiliated with a church, and far fewer than that actually attend church, Burgess estimated. While the grand cathedrals are still there, he notes they are mostly tourist attractions.

“People have mostly forgotten Christianity. They’ve forgotten what the church did,” Burgess said. “They don’t really have anything that comes into their mind, any association with the word church except that it is something that belongs to the past.”

The work in eastern Germany is in some ways very basic. Because of the low membership, it’s not unusual that a typical eastern German doesn’t even know anyone who is a Christian.

“The historical church of Germany we found both startled and surprised us: the cathedrals and pews seem empty, but the streets are full of the promise of Jesus Christ and the faithful disciples who proclaim his presence in the mission of the church,” said Will Scott, one of the students on the trip.

The group learned that the best way to make connections with people is one on one, slowly and without being pushy. They wanted to let people know that Christians are people with families and jobs and dreams just like they are.  But it’s a delicate balance.

“That’s what we were trying to understand — what does it mean to try to talk about the Gospel and to preach in a place that used to be entirely Christian and is now almost entirely non-Christian,” Burgess said. “If you talk too much about Jesus, then you tend to scare them off, but if you don’t say anything about Christ and Christian faith, then they don’t really understand either who you are.”

The group met with pastors, professors and church leaders to learn ways of doing mission in a post-Christian society, as North America is increasingly becoming.

The challenge is to be there as a loving presence, but also help people understand why you are that loving presence, why you pray, why you celebrate Christmas or wear a cross.

“One thing that’s been working pretty well is the church has started kindergartens,” Burgess said.

Public schools offer kindergarten, but the private, church-run kindergartens have gained a good reputation. They’ve become a bit of common ground where eastern Germans can see that the church cares about children just as they do. In these church kindergartens, children pray before lunch, the minister sometimes comes to visit and they learn about things like Christmas.

“We’re not trying to convert the children, but they become comfortable with the Christian atmosphere, and sometimes that’s the way then that the parents overcome their uncertainty or suspicions about the church,” Burgess said.

In addition to kindergartens, the church is also having success with projects like soup kitchens or visits to retirement homes or hospitals.

Part of that effort also involves working with current church members to get them engaged in outreach and evangelism, a role they are not used to taking. The small size of many congregations has led to pressure to combine parishes, keeping ministers so busy with day-to-day management that they don’t have time to be creative or work on new initiatives.

“Germans are not used to taking that active role in the church,” Burgess said. “That’s more typical of North America, but for them it’s a new lesson — to have lay people, elders and church members take a more active part in ministry and mission. That’s one place where they admire and learn from the American church.”

That work will put a big demand on church members, but they’re the ones with the most contact with non-Christians to help break down those barriers. There is a lot of clarity about what needs to be done, but it will take a lot of patience. As one of the speakers on the trip told Burgess, people left the church in droves but they will come back one by one.

Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she is also secretary for First Presbyterian Church.