What's left after the Protestant Church congress?

The Protestant conference in Hamburg was a display of strength with 120,000 participants attending the five-day event. But the organizers shouldn't shy away from political controversy, says DW's Christoph Strack.

It's a good thing there was at least some visible commotion. On Saturday (04.05.2013), an appearance by German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière was interrupted by heckling. The minister wasn't fazed and was able to continue his speech after a few minutes. But the short spell of trouble made for some excitement and provided a light whiff of controversy at the German Protestant Church conference in Hamburg (May 1-5).

Dissent used to be a lot more pronounced: In previous years, the Protestant congress functioned as a beacon for introducing new ideas to public discourse. During the peak years of the Cold War that divided Europe, conference participants in Hamburg (1981) and Hannover (1983) spectacularly took a stand on the peace movement and the environment. That was long before the Green Party was part of the political establishment.

Church conferences under Gerhard Schröder's coalition government of Social Democrats and the Green Party saw passionate arguments about social reforms and the German army's deployment abroad.

New perspectives: a European church conference

"As much as you need," was the motto of this year's church meeting against the backdrop of the European financial crisis which has long since gone well beyond the realm of pure economics. The biblical quote carries an interesting message for a wealthy metropolis, like Hamburg – against greed and excess, and for a fair, social state. But event planners and visitors mostly focused on the theological interpretation. Hardly any of the large panels with top-tier politicians sought a confrontation with critics.

That's because the church conference is a forum to reassure believers and those still seeking in times of trouble and is especially true in times of major political crises and global challenges. The conference clearly responds to a common need. The 120,000 visitors who registered for the entire five-day conference speaks for itself.

Religion in a secular society

This is a stark contrast to other religious events in Germany that have attracted significantly fewer visitors, and which have steered clear of the largest cities where support is lower than in mid-sized communities, like Osnabrück, Mannheim, or in 2014, Regensburg. Even the traditional Easter peace marches, which used to dominate the evening news 20 or 30 years ago, today have participant numbers so low that they are barely worth mentioning.

But the Protestant conference continuously attracts Christians to walk on a shared path for a short while. Among them is a surprisingly large number of young people. Observers, feeling the mood in Hamburg, again began looking at the possibility of an international, a European, church conference. Protestants and Catholics alike have considered such an event every once in a while, but never has the international perspective been so concretely eyed as this time around. The new sense of urgency came from speakers, like former German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who warned of the danger of a new denominational divide in crisis-riddled Europe.

German lay organizations

While there are thoughts of internationalization, it's not hard to reach the conclusion that neither the Protestant nor Catholic Church Conferences lend themselves to an expansion on a more international scale. The problem isn't higher costs, or longer distances to travel. No, the fact is, outside of Germany, no other European country has strong, functioning laymen organizations within the large Christian denominations able to shoulder such an event. Besides the German ones, there are no comparable Catholic or Protestant organizations in other countries that contribute to public life in the same extensive and meaningful way.

All that speaks against internationalization. But it does underscores the role of large events and their organizers in Germany. Participants from more than 80 countries gathered in Hamburg. Even in English, foreign guests, like Helen Clark, head of the UN Development Program, used the German expression "Kirchentag", literally 'church day'. The word 'festival' was heard less often.

Dare to be controversial

The Hamburg conference showed how strong this format can be. Maybe not in creating political controversy, which is where organizers need to dare to argue more, but in providing a spiritual base for believers and guests with the time-tested bible interpretation workshops and the wide range of church services. Roughly a third of Hamburg citizens belong to a large Christian church. The President of the Church Conference, Gerhard Robbers, compared that to another statistic: Some 50 percent of Hamburg citizens identify themselves as Christians. Robbers said that anger might be a reason to leave the church, but doubt, religious longing and looking for the meaning of life or happiness, are not.

Such impulses will definitely be felt in Hamburg after the conference and travel home with visitors when they return to their own congregations and communities all over Germany. "The Church conference doesn't end on Sunday," Hamburg's mayor Olaf Scholz said. "The spirit brought by the many people who came here will linger in the air for a long time."

This is one aspect of sustainability that congregations and the Protestant Church need. If the next Church conference manages to be as involved and argumentative as during the glory days when it pushed topics onto the political agenda for months, then the enduring importance of a joyous and pious Church conference will shine again.