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West Germany's Lutherans stress their churches' social activism

The Lutheran Church is losing fewer members than it once did in West Germany. But many of its members now seem to be looking to their church for social activism rather than pastoral guidance.

These are the broad conclusions of a mid-September sociological survey of some 1,500 members of the Evangelical Church in Germany. The Evangelical Church , which sponsored the survey, represents some 26 million Lutheran and Calvinist Protestants, or 42 percent of all West Germans.

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In presenting the findings of the poll, Lutheran Bishop Eduard Lohse noted that 88 percent of members baptize their children - an increase from 82 percent a decade ago, when the first survey was carried out after a wave of resignations from church membership.

The study stressed that there is no antireligious mood at present and that Christians are viewed with respect.

Bishop Lohse further reported that more than 1.5 million members have left the evangelical churches in the past 10 years. He regarded this annual 1 percent membership decline as a stabilization of church adherence after the figures of the early 1970s.

A more disturbing sign for the Protestant churches is the increased readiness of young adults in their 20s and early 30s to contemplate dropping their affiliation. This tendency is especially marked in urban areas and among the better educated. The survey estimated that there are ''4.6 million church members over 14 years old who have already, so to speak, set one foot outside the church.''

The poll stressed: ''One must assume that resignation from the church ... has advanced from the realm of a socially conspicuous, almost taboo action to the rank of a thoroughly normal mode of behavior.''

A few critics are disturbed by a growing inclination among Protestants to value social or political moral leadership in the church above spiritual concerns. While only 1 in 4 of those polled thought reading the Bible or attending Sunday services was important to their faith, 3 out of every 4 expected their churches to take positions on such issues as unemployment, aid to third-world countries, and war and peace.

Hans-Otto Wolber, commenting in the conservative newspaper Die Welt, rebuked the Evangelical Church for accepting these premises in its formulation of questions for the survey.

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''The secondary motives for church membership, such as tradition and social custom that are taken for granted, are diminishing,'' Wolber wrote.

He called for an inquiry that would focus not on sociology and opinion polling but on the elements that contribute to religion's unique character. He specified such concepts as the status of biblical knowledge and the appreciation of prayer.

''How otherwise,'' he asked, ''should one effectively feel out what the future of the church is?''

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