I find myself in the middle of a land I heard about for many years prior to our move: post-Christian Europe. Our family moved to Hannover, Germany, almost two years ago, and our experience of church has taken on challenging and nuanced approaches since then.
It’s a fascinating position to be in. As an ordained minister of the Reformed Church in America and a previous resident of the holy land that is West Michigan, I found it sobering to move to a city that has one Reformed church. One. Not only are we removed from the vibrant, locally and globally engaged worshipping community that we were once part of, but we are now attempting to participate in and construct a worshipping community that is trying to make sense of the gospel message in a place that no longer views the Christian message with a sense of vibrancy.
I was engaged in conversation with another Reformed pastor from Hannover about six months ago, and I was asking him how he understands the role of church in Hannover and in Germany as a whole. He answered sarcastically yet with a layer of truth, “I think the role of the church is administration.” The church in Europe retains elements of faith from an age-gone-by. I don’t think that is necessarily news for us.
The day I realized our sanctuary has a balcony was on confirmation Sunday last spring when the church was packed with family and friends of the fifteen confirmands joining the church. People retain church affiliation for the culturally significant moments of life: birth, confirmation, marriage and death. But there is also a seasonal form of Christianity that remains. Take for instance the massively popular Christmas markets and advent season in Germany – it is an extremely prevalent form of Christianity that retains its popularity in the cultural fabric.
In Hannover, the other well-attended Christian worship experience I have witnessed is the 11 p.m. Christmas Eve service held in the main train station every year. Thousands of people gather to ring in Christmas Day. Here in Hannover churches still hold a certain aspect of a volkskirche – the people’s church. The church maintains a role, in the very least, as an element of the social fabric for cultural events in Germany. This week we will celebrate the national holiday of Ascension Day, when everyone has the day off of work and shops are closed in order to observe the day when Jesus ascended into heaven. However, in actuality, it is a long weekend when many people travel to enjoy the first days of spring.
Nevertheless, I have also seen Germans being the church in ways that would put our church-going Americans to shame. As the flood of refugees has entered this country over the last number of months from Syria I have witnessed unbelievable graciousness and generosity being poured out. People have opened their homes, offering up spare bedrooms for those in need. Communities have embraced hundreds of refugees at a time, gathering household supplies, teaching them language skills and to ride bicycles, embracing strangers as long lost family members. I was speaking to a German friend about the incoming refugees and she said, for many difficult and nuanced historical reasons I am sure, “We must welcome them. We must.” From my perspective, Germans have put into action what God has asked of the church: to welcome the stranger and to clothe the naked, to care for the widow and the orphan.
We are living a German life, but we are also members of an international community. I am now pastoring an English language congregation that meets at the Reformed Church of Hannover and I am blessed beyond belief to witness the global church before my eyes on a regular basis. We have people from India, Syria, Ireland, Germany, the United States, Canada, Cuba, Taiwan and more worshipping together in the shared language of English and it is a challenging and enriching exercise to pastor a congregation such as this. It is an exercise of listening for the whispers of the Holy Spirit as well as speaking the Good News that is faithful to God’s word in a manner that is globally aware yet locally specific to our call as disciples in this city and continent. From my perspective the continent of Europe is in need of a reminder of the life-giving Good News that is the person of Jesus Christ. Our small band of followers is a witness to what I see as the foretaste of the feast to come: Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants worshipping together in ecumenical spirit because we share one Lord. But shhh…maybe we shouldn’t let the church hierarchy know that.
But I have also learned an immense amount of the difficulty and the challenging landscape the church of Germany still lives within. Germans continue to be leery of any rhetoric or preaching that might sound like or give a hint of nationalistic movements or propaganda. Because of the history of the church in Germany during Hitler’s rise and throughout World War II the church of today must continue to live out their witness in subtle ways.
So why church? Because I have said in my heart time and again since moving, “As a deer panteth for the water so my soul longeth after Thee.” We as disciples of Jesus Christ thirst for the Living Water that is provided only by God and we find it when we gather together to sing songs and hymns, when we listen to the Living Word, when we pray for one another and our world and when we offer community for one another in the midst of our pilgrim journey of faith. I feel less isolated and more comforted when we gather together for church. As a significant witness for all of us, my kids meet classmates who are, in some way, also being raised in the Christian faith.
I leave you with my message to the world: be more like Germany. Be welcoming of refugees and open your doors of hospitality because, despite the immense challenges, the joy of building community and friendship across cultures is enriching and life giving! And my message to Germany: you don’t have to be ashamed of the Good News of the gospel. Embrace the person of Jesus Christ and continue to pray for the life of the Holy Spirit to fill your places of worship.
Gretchen: I’m thinking about the “cultural” aspect of faith for various traditions, from Christian to Muslim to Jewish. For many, they identify as one of these traditions, but the heart of the matter for them is the cultural practice, not so much the faith practice. Here in America (to play off your “here in Hannover”) I suspect the cultural Christian is becoming a stronger component of American life. The danger is that this cultural aspect then, is not living, changing expression, but based on tradition. That leaves little room to engage in conversation about how a Christian minister, for example, might want to discuss faith and church in response to a request for baptism. What many are asking for is a cultural moment, not a religious moment. Hence, asking about faith, and covenant promises, and the engagement of a particular faith community seem like interrogation. Thanks for writing!