But every cloud has its silver lining, and in this case there's the opportunity for hard-up congregations to turn no longer needed items such as collection boxes and wooden altars into cash through new websites dedicated specifically for this purpose, such as "Kircheninventar-verkauf.de."
Congregations can even sell the church buildings themselves online. The Archdiocese of Berlin is active on eBay, where it is offering for sale "a church in a popular residential area" in the nearby city of Brandenburg.
Yet many of these properties do not find a buyer. Most churches have cold floors and high ceilings of 10 meters (30 feet) or more, and lack kitchen facilities. Even give-away prices often aren't enough of an incentive. The Maria Goretti Chapel in the small northeastern city of Demmin, for example, costs just 20,000, but no one wants to buy it.
A church that has been standing empty for months in the small western German city of Altena provides another example of just how sluggishly these sales move. "Built in 1907 and all natural stone!" chirps realtor Dan Ossenberg-Engels, producing an iron key and opening the building's main door, which creaks as he pushes it.
Blue light filters through the rose windows, illuminating wooden pews and an enormous chandelier. "One prospective buyer wanted to put in a drop ceiling and live here," Ossenberg-Engels relates. Now the realtor is in negotiations with an entrepreneur who wants to convert the building into a music club. The pulpit would certainly serve well as a DJ stand.
Hauled By Truck to Romania
Hip-hop replacing hallelujah -- is that going too far? What is acceptable and what crosses the line into sacrilege?
The Protestant EKD has made its peace with its properties being taken over by groups who take the buildings' former purpose lightly. Still, if given the choice, the Church prefers purposes that preserve the "dignity of the space," such as nursing homes or preschools. The Church is also happy to accept one of its former buildings being put to use as a site for burying cremation urns, or converted into choir practice rooms. In Boostedt in northern Germany, one undertaker even uses a former church to display his coffins.
The Church is even happier if it can find buyers who are fellow Christians, for example, Russian or Serbian Orthodox congregations. One church near Lake Steinhude was even hauled to Romania by truck, to be used by a congregation there.
Such ideal matches, though, are rare. And at the same time, the number of properties up for sale is only increasing. The New Apostolic Church, for example, is also foundering, and has put more than 60 of its properties up for sale online.
These churches have no choice but to make compromises. One funeral chapel in Berlin is now being used as a theater, while the sanctuary of a church in the northern town of Milow houses an ATM. And in the former Church of St. Martin in the city of Bielefeld, patrons relax in lounge chairs and dine on white truffle cream and wasabi dip to the tinkling of background piano music.
For the Catholic Church, this is going too far. Although the church has allowed some of its properties to be turned over for less-than-sacred uses -- a rock climbing facility, for example, with a vitamin bar in the nave and showers in the former sacristy -- in most cases, the church takes a stricter approach. If a building is in danger of falling down and no suitable buyer can be found, the Catholic Church prefers to simply tear it down.
Not for Other Religions
One point on which it seems both the Protestant and Catholic Churches can agree is that sects and other religious groups are generally not acceptable as buyers. A handbook issued by the Protestant Church in Hesse and Nassau says that in order to avoid increasing the "fog of religious diffusion," the sale of church buildings to Muslims or Buddhists, for example, is "not possible."
Where Muslim communities have nonetheless taken over former church buildings, they are generally properties that belonged to unaffiliated churches. In four cases so far, such churches have sold buildings to Muslim congregations. In addition, there's the one former Protestant church in the Horn district of Hamburg that went through an intermediate step before then being bought by a Muslim group.
There's no doubt about it -- the Christian churches' fighting spirit is a thing of the past. The publication Spirit estimates that out of about 45,000 churches in Germany, 15,000 soon will no longer be needed. These buildings are simply too opulent, too empty and too expensive to maintain, something akin to an aging grandmother still living in a mansion when just one room would do.
But all this should not worry pious minds too unduly. The Bible itself offers faith and love, solace and hope, enough to cover even this thoroughly modern real estate problem.
Most relevant is the passage in 2 Corinthians 5:1 -- "For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens."