Five hundred years after the Protestant Reformation, churches in former East Germany have a plan to lure lapsed Christians back to the pews.
The French Friedrichstadt Church in Berlin's Gendarmenmarkt is among the first churches to get a Godspot. Photo: Eliot Stein
Former East Germany is the most godless place on the planet.
The region is home to the highest percentage of atheists in the world. Just eight percent of its population claim to believe in God. Its churches are being sold off at a blistering pace, and so many of its devotees are dying off each year that Christianity is expected to become a minority religion in Germany in the next 20 years.
So, in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's Reformation next year, local Protestant churches have developed a plan to lure people back to their pews and help them reconnect: They're going to offer free public Wi-Fi in and around all the churches in former East Germany.
They're calling these Wi-Fi hotspots, "Godspots."
The project is currently being rolled out in 220 churches in and around Berlin with plans to connect a total of 3,000 churches, community centers, and religious institutions by next May.
"People are no less spiritual than before, but the point of the Reformation was that the church needs to continuously evolve," says Christoph Heil, a spokesperson for the project. "Just as people looked to church towers and listened for bells before there were watches, we want to show that church buildings can still be a gathering place for communication."
While this Protestant push may seem like something of a marketing Hail Mary, it's actually a blessing when you consider that much of Germany is a digital wasteland.
Despite being one of the most industrialized nations on earth and boasting the world's fourth largest economy, Germany lags behind much of Europe when it comes to public Wi-Fi access. According to a study by eco, the association of the German internet industry, the country has about 15,000 free Wi-Fi hotspots—the equivalent of one for roughly every 10,000 people. The US, by comparison, has five times as many free hotspots per person, and the UK has 28 times as many.
In fact, if Godspot reaches its stated goal by the country's nationwide Jubilee next year, the country's Protestant church would be among largest providers of open Wi-Fi in all of Germany.
Much of the blame behind the country's patchwork connectivity is due to a thorny law called Störerhaftung. The basic idea is that the person or company who operates a Wi-Fi hotspot is liable for anything illegal that someone does on their network–even if they know nothing about it. So, if someone in a cafe illegally downloads music or a movie, the guy making the macchiato could be sued for piracy. And since Germany has some of the strictest copyright laws in Europe and it's not unheard of to get a €2,000 fine in the mail, many cafes, libraries, and even hotels here are reluctant to offer registration-free Wi-Fi.
"Just as people looked to church towers and listened for bells before there were watches, we want to show that church buildings can still be a gathering place for communication."
Yet, after years of dispute, the German government is about to relax its Wi-Fi liability laws, with Störerhaftung set to be scrapped in the fall. While the Protestant church's self-proclaimed "rebranding effort" could have easily waited until then, Godspot's organizers were eager to push forward with their message of free and open communication, and let their lawyers deal with any legal issues.
"You know, 500 years ago, the Reformation never would have had the success it did were it not for the revolution of the printing press and the ability to get a message out to the masses," Heil says. "This is just another step in the development of that open communication, and in Germany, it's badly needed."