Seven years in Karlsruhe: Memories of a church planter
In September 2007, I completed my seventh year as a Global Mission church planter pastor among the Spanish community of Karlsruhe, Germany. In spite of the support we received from the Baden-Wüerttemberg Conference, those first two years were very difficult for my newlywed wife and me: different culture, different language, and different food.
During my journey, I have learned some lessons that would help if I could move back time and begin again. I hope they will help others.
Beginnings can be difficult
Although the group was working well together, there were many personal problems among the members beneath the surface that sometimes arose publicly during Sabbath School study time. You can imagine that with that kind of spectacle, guests would just visit us one Sabbath and then politely decline any further contact. Due to my inexperience, I thought that my work was to say who was wrong and who was right. The problems reached their climax in a church business meeting where all of us (including myself) expressed our feelings regarding one another. Clearly, I should have been bigger than the circumstances. I’m just grateful my church forgave me.
Pruning precedes blooming
After that business meeting, there were several weeks of high tension. Some members didn’t come to the church services, others attended the German church, and others attended every Sabbath but couldn’t look one another in the eye. Little by little, there were personal appointments, exchanges of letters, some tears of repentance, and finally hugs of forgiveness. The great Gardener was using His pruning shears to cut everything that was preventing His church from growing.
After that pruning process, all of a sudden a group of guests began to attend our church on a regular basis. We had to go through God’s process in order to grow.
Your call is the cornerstone of your mission, nothing else
Many of my friends and family members never thought I would study theology. Neither did I. When someone asked me why I had done so, I would answer, “Because I liked it.” I later earned a master’s degree in psychology. And there, I had a vocational problem. What should I become, a pastor or a psychologist? I decided the best was letting God decide, instead of me.
Due to the absence of evidence from God, I was projecting to follow on my PhD in psychology. But one month before the final exams, I received an email with the subject: “Invitation to pastor the Spanish speaking church of Karlsruhe.” Since I had already made my plans, my first reaction was to ignore the email, but that lasted only three seconds because suddenly I realized that in front of me was the miraculous and crystal clear answer that I had requested. Suddenly, right there, in the university’s computer room, I felt that I was in God’s presence. I asked for a phone call or a letter, and God sent me a phone call–letter.
Don’t be afraid to preach Jesus
Two years ago, when the time came to give a name to our brand-new church, our church committee decided to display the name Seventh-day Adventist Christian Church (the official name of the church in Spain), for in that way, people could identify us as Christians. At the beginning, following this spirit of a mixed sense of fear and shame, all our evangelistic work was an attempt to hide that we were Adventist. We conducted wonderful seminars on health and family, garnering precious contacts. But we were not sure how to reveal to them our true identity.
Then came the moment when we decided to step out in faith and prepare an evangelistic week with biblical preaching and introduce ourselves as what we really were: Christians, and preaching nothing else but Jesus. Results? Unbelievable! People came! From that point on, we changed our methods, our style, and our mind. God showed us that we could, with no fear, preach the gospel. Presently, our annual program revolves around two core activities: an evangelistic week the first half of the year and a Week of Prayer the second half.
The core of our evangelistic work: friendship
Our situation is challenging: we are to evangelize all the Spanish speaking people in Karlsruhe, Germany. That is not easy because immigrants experience a natural process of transculturization and so our people don’t think like Hispanics; but neither do they think solely like Germans. We need creativity in order to know how to reach them. For seven years, we tried all the programs that came to our minds, but in the last two years, we have confirmed that the best method to win souls for Jesus begins and ends with friendship. We have spent a significant amount of funds in advertising, with meager results; but the silent, constant work with family and friends has brought more visitors to our church. During this process, our target audience discovered that we don’t want anything from them other than friendship. The person eventually felt free to ask about our faith, plus many other things. Our silent and impossible-to-hide lifestyle has become our most powerful sermon.
Adapt to your setting
In Mexico, for example, pastoral image is important. In the Spanish language, we have two ways of addressing people, one is usted, used to show respect and deference, and tu (both translated in English as “you”), used when speaking in familiar terms with someone. In Mexico, it is unthinkable to address a pastor with tu, but that was the first thing that my little congregation did with me. Later, I discovered that German church members use the du (tu) form instead of the Sie (usted) form to address all ministers. (In German, even God is referred to with the more personal du.) German thinking avoids the Sie form with pastors because that means distancing, and it may build a relational barrier.
At the beginning of my ministry here, I had problems because I interpreted many behaviors of my church members as defiance to my authority, and therefore, I tried to impose it. That brought me to a stressful, vicious circle.
Luckily, in a casual conversation with a colleague, he told me that church members don’t want a boss; they want a friend, a helper. That changed my mind and my leadership style 180 degrees.
Sometimes, when I read the reports of my fellow Global Mission colleagues in Africa or Asia, I feel uncomfortable because some of them ask for bicycles to do their job, or they live in difficult environments, while I live in the richest country in Europe, in a beautiful house with a beautiful garden, and have a German-engineered car. Is that the life of an overseas missionary?
What makes a missionary? Their mission. Our objective is no different from other missionaries: preach the gospel everywhere. Our humble work fulfills a small part of our world church mission.
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