Briest, Germany — The tombstones in the graveyard are polished, but the village church, which counted only three Sunday regulars, was cracked and water-stained when it was sold for $10,000 to an aspiring filmmaker who hung a poster of musician Lou Reed beyond the vestibule.
The altar was stripped. Icons and pews were carted off with the steeple bell. It's hard to be precise about when things started going bad, but the church's slide began after old Pastor Giebler died during the German reunification and a once secure village frayed in the whirl of newfound freedom.
"When the political change happened, there was a huge atomization," said the new owner, Juliane Beer, who as a child attended services here with her grandmother. "This village had a grocery, a post office, buses going by, but now it's all gone, kaput. A church has been on this site since the 13th century. The only thing left are memories. Six years ago, a friend of my grandmother's died in this church during Christmas Mass."
Beer looked around. Her bed is in the choir loft and there's an espresso machine where the hymnals used to be; the arched windows are clear but they rattle, cobwebs shimmy on fading whitewashed walls.
"Jesus is gone," she said. "I'd like to turn it into a studio for artists."
The village church is struggling for relevance in modern Europe. The continent is rooted in Christianity, but devotion is ebbing and church attendance has dropped steadily for years. In Germany and other nations, the Protestant and Catholic faiths are selling properties or leasing them to other religious groups, especially in cities and villages where churches are left vacant as shrinking congregations merge.
Churches have been reinvented as restaurants, coffee houses, clubs, apartments and music halls. Some have kept their frescoes and stained glass; others have been de-sanctified, yet their unmistakable facades and architecture leave an imprint of the holy on even the most capitalist of endeavors.
The churches of Europe have endured wars, plagues and much else, and although the current crisis probably will pass, the image of the church is being significantly altered.
South of Briest, past asparagus fields and cattle, Christiane Beutel, the pastor of the Lutheran Church in the fishing village of Plaue, opened a church ledger from 1650. Written with ink and quill and held together by tape, the pages note the baptisms and deaths and the works of those whose bones have since turned to dust in the cemetery outside.
"There's a trend in Germany, and people are saying they don't want to devote themselves to anything fixed, whether it be a church or a political party," Beutel said. "They just want to live their lives and have fun. I think this comes from a collective disappointment that things didn't turn out like people thought, and illusions were shattered after communism fell."
Tight church budgets mean Beutel's duties are many and scattered. She and two other ministers serve five churches in the region. Her congregations in Plaue, southwest of Brandenburg city, and nearby Woltersdorf shrunk from 800 to 600 in the last decade. This mirrored a pattern of decline in population and prosperity: Thousands of steel industry jobs were lost, Plaue closed its last school two years ago, and the town's once strong band of 30 fishing families has dwindled to four.
A recent study by Dresdner Bank predicted that in the coming years, 50 percent of Germany's churches might close or be turned into other uses. The nation's Roman Catholic Church is expected to stop services in 700 of its 24,500 churches by 2015. Some of them, such as St. Laurentius in Berlin, are being rented to African and other immigrant religious denominations. The Lutheran church has sold a number of its churches to such groups, including to a Serbian Orthodox community.
"I think it's time for more lay people to become involved and for church communities to learn they don't need a priest to come every weekend," said Beutel, whose Lutheran Church has cut its clergy in Germany by about one-third since 1990. "The church should live on in small families and groups. We know this is possible because of the Christian and Jewish diasporas over the centuries. People need to take more responsibility for their faith."