Cologne Cathedral at sunrise. The churchly links of German adult education are still evident today. / Photo: Climey Amors. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“Catholics” and “Protestants” – is German adult education rooted in the Church?

Adult education in Germany is often linked with the Catholic and Protestant churches. This linkage is profoundly influenced by two conditions that are rooted in German society. These are the diversity associated with the autonomy of the states, “Länder”, and the deep, but declining entrenchment of the Christian faiths in society.


A European adult educator, coming into contact with the German adult education field, may wonder about the fact that the institutions in the sector bear churchly names. Examples include, for instance, the umbrella organizations KEB, the “Catholic Adult Education” and the DEAE, the “German Evangelical Work Association”.

The roots of these Christian links with adult education are in the “evangelization” work of Christianity. To convince – or in terms of theology to “evangelize” – is from the beginning a part of the mission of Christian religions. Sermons in churches are, to say it in modern terms, keynote speeches. In the 19th century several movements and associations were developed to establish an adult education structure with a social ethic focus (“Volksbildung”). These associations were largely established by Christian churches. Consequently, even today these two areas, the religious and the social field, are the main pillars of denominational adult education even today.

Today, the two Christian denominations support a dense network of adult education institutions. These include “academies” responding to the needs of the intellectual middle-classes with a more academically oriented programme, local and regional “training institutions”, offering a varied, but often non-religious programme and the family educational establishments catering for (young) families.

The Catholic Church’s adult education network boasts 6602 establishments and the Protestants have 459, offering 64,500 (Cath. AE) and 74,500 (Prot. AE) sessions per year respectively, accounting for around 20% of all adult education sessions in Germany.

In this text the term “denominational” has been used to apply to all Catholic and Protestant-based activities. It has to be noted that only a small part of both Catholic and Protestant adult education is concerned with religious themes and not all institutions are “denominational”. In fact, only 10-20 %  out of the courses offered by either denomination are in the range of subjects relating to Church, Theology, Religion and Ethics. Subjects on topics such as family, culture and health account for almost 70 % of all offers.

In other words denominational adult education in Germany is all-embracing and not restricted to religious subjects.

The centres for adult education in Germany that are run by local authorities in the public sector offer significantly more in the way of language education, compared with the denominational providers.

Religious character – weakening connection

Church-led adult education in Germany is surprisingly resilient. Whereas both churches are witnessing a shrinking membership and a significant fall in commitment (church attendance, community work, etc.), the figures for denominational adult education are only suffering a slight decline at most. In all probability this is mainly due to the fact that adult education is not seen as an extension of community and pastoral work, but as a bridge between church and society. Priority is given to satisfying specific individual and social needs. This means a computer course for the elderly is just as likely to appear on the programme as educational trips or Christmas crafts courses.

At the same time church-led adult education is particularly strong on ethical questions, dealing for example with themes such as death and dying, illness, disability or civic engagement. A trend towards a “new spirituality” has also been evident in recent years. Spiritual contemplation, monastic retreats, meditation are even popular with management staff.

It is also extremely fitting that church-led adult education is now very heavily involved in helping refugees, particularly in areas such as integration and language courses, training for volunteers and emergency relief.

Although the established churches and their rituals are losing their significance, society in Germany is steeped in Christian culture and tradition. Fundamental Catholic and Protestant values are still firmly rooted in many regions, even though the established churches and their representatives increasingly come in for criticism, and theological knowledge, piety and attendance are in sharp decline.

That being said, the variations and differences between Catholics and Protestants are now virtually imperceptible. Church-led adult education is seen as a value-enhancing service to humanity and has its place. It is not on a mission to convert and does not act as an extension of the established churches.

Diversity – Fragmentation

Federal plurality and diversity are typical concepts in Germany. Each Federal state has its own law on continuing education and training that governs the institutions based in that particular state.

This “subsidiarity” principle is relevant for understanding the churchly roots of German adult education. The basic idea is that civil society takes over public tasks like welfare and education. If NGOs are active in public duties, the state should not be involved otherwise than supporting the NGOs financially. This means there has always been an important societal role to fill for civil society actors such as churches in the field of education.

The local authorities’ adult learning centres provide basic services. Then there are a large number of private providers who are (partially) funded by the Federal states according to their legislation on continuing education. In addition to the denominational institutions, educational establishments are also run by the trade unions, parties or charitable associations. This diversity has its roots in the powerful status of associations in Germany and the basic principle of subsidiarity – i.e. the principle that societal functions should be primarily fulfilled by the organisations of civil society before the State gets involved.

Furthermore, education is the responsibility of the Federal states in Germany. There is even a policy of “no cooperation”, barring the Federal Government from getting involved, even financially.

This is also why Germany has no overall umbrella organisation for adult education. Different configurations may exist even within the same denomination at Federal state and national level. For example there is a Federal Association for Catholic Adult Education in Germany, the “Bundesverband katholische Erwachsenenbildung Deutschland” – but it does not represent family education, which has its own national association. In political terms this fragmentation can often be a disadvantage when it comes to promoting the interests of adult education as a whole.

Catholic – Protestant – ecumenical?

Is there any perceptible difference between the adult education provided by the Catholic and Protestant churches today? At the time of the “Conservative Turn” – in particular during the papacies of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI – the Catholic Church tended to focus on its own principles – rather than moving in an ecumenical direction. But because many courses offered by church providers of adult education do not focus on theological or religious themes, there was, and still is, little to distinguish between in their educational content.

On the other hand the structural associations of the institutions with the “Mother Church” and the (enduring) lack of motivation actually to work closely together in the spirit of ecumenism still clearly persist in the present day. It is true there have been some attempts in southern Germany to run adult education establishments jointly, such as the “Ökumenische Bildungszentrum sanctclara” ecumenical centre in Mannheim, but these are isolated initiatives.

Catholic and Protestant institutions alike are financially and organisationally incorporated in the structures of their national churches, dioceses, associations or foundations. Although the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is due to be the subject of joint celebrations in 2017, genuine cooperation is still a long way off.


Further reading (in German language)

Statistics on German further education: Horn, H., Lux, T. & Ambos, I.: Weiterbildungsstatistik im Verbund 2013 –Kompakt, Bonn 2015,

Bergold, R.; Boschki, R.: Einführung in die religiöse Erwachsenenbildung. Darmstadt 2014

Die Deutschen Bischöfe: Katholische Erwachsenenbildung in Deutschland – Grundauftrag, Situation, Perspektiven. DB-Kommission No. 40, 2014

See also Kardinal Walter Kasper: Einheit in Jesus Christus, Schriften zur Ökumene Volume 2, Freiburg i.Br. 2013

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