by Fred McRae
With eighty-two million inhabitants, Germany continues to be a desperate mission field in need of thousands of new churches. The good news is that over 1,500 new churches have been planted in Germany in the past ten years, with a total membership of well over 100,0001 (“In Deutschland wurden…” 2004, 16).
With eighty-two million inhabitants, Germany continues to be a desperate mission field in need of thousands of new churches. The good news is that over 1,500 new churches have been planted in Germany in the past ten years, with a total membership of well over 100,0001 (“In Deutschland wurden…” 2004, 16). Most of these independent churches have between fifty and one hundred members and were started by lay Christians who were unhappy with their former congregations. Instead of staying in their churches, they found it easier to start new congregations. Although this may not be the best motivation for starting a new church, it is still wonderful news for church planters.
That a German Christian would have the idea to start a new congregation—and take the initiative to actually do it—is phenomenal.
The church planting landscape has altered to such an extent that many see church planting as the source of renewal within the troubled Lutheran church (Aschoff, et al 1992). This is remarkable considering Germany’s dismal church planting record. Baptists, Evangelical Free and other non-tax supported Free churches are shedding their descriptions as sects.
For the first time in German history, these Free churches will have paid lobbyists to represent their denominations in Berlin. Truly, God is blessing this church planting movement in Germany.
For example, thirty years ago there were only ten Free churches in Munich. Today there are over fifty (“1.500 ‘neue’ evangelische…” 1999, 6). The German Evangelical Free Church continues to grow by planting new churches. In 1974 there were 225 Evangelical Free churches; today there are over 410. Their goal is to double the number of churches in the next twenty-five years. They will likely accomplish this goal, since they plant eight churches each year. The denomination needs church planters to help them accomplish this task and they are not shy about requesting Americans (“Wir wollen in 25…” 2004, 18-19).
We must, however, put things in perspective. Germany continues to be a desolate place when it comes to having truly “biblical” churches. Today, there are more Roman Catholics than Lutherans in the country. The New Apostolic Church is the largest cult in Germany, with a membership of 460,000. In contrast, the total membership of all the denominational Free churches is only 360,000. In fact, the city of Mainz (population 186,000) has only four hundred members in their three Free churches. With only five percent of the population declaring to be committed Christians, Germany is indeed still a mission field.
CHRISTIAN RESONSE TO CHURCH PLANTING EFFORTS
How are church planters and sending agencies responding to the tremendous need in Germany on the one hand, and the many opportunities presented by the church planting movement on the other? For the most part, mission agencies and church planters continue as if nothing has changed. The traditional scenario continues: The mission agency sends a “pioneer” church planter to start a single congregation. The church planter is the pastor of the church and continues to build up the congregation for many years so that one day a national pastor can take over.
However, God is also calling German believers with no formal theological training to plant new congregations. This presents expatriate church planters with a brand new opportunity.
In light of this new church planting environment, we need a strategy that multiplies our efforts by establishing several congregations at the same time. Instead of planting our own church, we train and mentor the lay people God has called. This means one church planter works simultaneously with two or three church plants and instead of planting one church every five to ten years, he or she can help German denominations plant multiple congregations. The Evangelical Free Church is successfully modeling this strategy. Because the church is planting daughter churches, membership is growing. Church planters can work with several of these church starts at once, lending expertise and guidance in order to more quickly get the church started.
Another example of successful church planting is happening within the German Baptist community. Their goal is to establish a network of evangelistic home Bible studies in areas where there are no Bible-based churches. This network of Bible studies will then form the foundation for the church planting teams.
The expatriate church planter will train and mentor leaders for these church planting teams. Instead of planting one congregation at a time, the church planter will be involved with starting several congregations.
This strategy is not a new church planting method; rather, it is a new application of the plethora of church planting methods used today. It incorporates the different methods of starting a church on multiple and/or regional levels. The philosophy behind “Saturation Church Planting” (which seeks to mobilize the body of Christ to provide an evangelical congregation for every community in every country) forms the foundation of this new idea. While it can be easily adapted to the German environment, it will require church planters and sending agencies to reevaluate how they go about their work. There are two elements of this strategy.
AVOID THE TITLE OF PASTOR
Traditionally, the expatriate church planter is a pastor who plants a church with or without the blessing of an indigenous denomination. The missionary is in actuality a “pastor-church planter.” In other words, the missionary is a pastor first and a church planter second. To take advantage of the present emphasis on church planting in Germany, the roles need to be reversed. The missionary uses the title of “Church Planter,” “Church Planter Trainer/Mentor” or “Church Planting Consultant.” By serving as a church planter mentor, the missionary performs pastoral duties, but without the title. He or she is able to work with several church plants at the same time. Instead of laboring for years in one location, the church planter’s efforts are multiplied by enabling him or her to plant several churches simultaneously.
Using this model, Germans are in leadership at the very beginning of the church plant. The missionary teaches the “how to’s,” but never takes a formal leadership role in the church. This allows for a smooth transition when a German pastor is called. Dropping the title of “Pastor” is an important step in communicating the church planter’s role. The absence of title and authority does not mean that one cannot exercise pastoral gifts. Teaching, counseling, mentoring, exhorting and encouraging are part of pastoring and are constantly exercised by the church planter mentor among the core group of German church planters with whom he or she works.
Yet there is still leadership. The leadership structure is already in place courtesy of the German denomination, under whose authority the church planter works. Basic doctrinal issues concerning leadership qualifications, church membership and church ordinances were decided years ago. When problems arise which need clarification, the lay church planters turn to the leadership of their mother church or to the denominational leadership.
CHANGE LEADERSHIP ROLES
Broadly speaking, there are two methods of leadership employed in church planting—direct and indirect. Direct leadership is often leader-centered; indirect leadership is centered on the group. Many churches have been planted through the use of direct leadership methods. This often includes traditional evangelistic crusades. This kind of leadership requires a special gift in public speaking; therefore, it is quickly apparent that many ordinary people would be disqualified. Most will not have the talent to plant churches if strong direct leadership is required. Additionally, strong leaders will have to restrain themselves if other people are to participate (Brock 1981, 73-74).
Church planters must ask this question: Are we presenting models that can be copied by everyday German Christians, or are we doing things that only specially-trained professionals can do? A more indirect leadership style is needed—one which encourages nationals to take charge in all areas of the ministry. This is vital to reaching Germany. There are not enough pastors, Bible school graduates or missionaries to plant the churches that Germany needs. If lay Christians do not do the work of filling Germany with churches, it will not happen.
Lay church planters look to the missionary for assistance, guidance and encouragement. However, the ultimate decision regarding the direction of the church must remain in German hands. This is why the nationals must be in leadership positions from the outset (and why expatriates must work in the background to encourage the lay church planters in their vision for the church). Traditionally, the expatriate plants a church according to his or her vision and North American background. As the new church takes form, the Germans want a church modeled to their vision. This is where problems arise. The expatriate pastor and the German congregation generally go in different directions.
By looking at the mistakes of the past, today’s church planters are able to avoid the pitfalls faced by previous expatriate pastors during times of transition. When church leadership is in the hands of the German congregation from the start, all parties will be encouraged. The following are some advantages to using this model:
Power struggles are eliminated. Church planters act as advisors, trainers and mentors who encourage the laity to preach, teach and counsel (Eph. 4:12). The trainer is invited to come and lend his or her expertise to particular church plants. The missionary holds no formal office of authority other than what is given by the denomination.
“When to leave?” decisions are eliminated. Since church planters are not pastors, the church is able to call a pastor when the denomination deems the congregation is spiritually and financially ready to have someone in that position.
Easier transitioning occurs. The difficulties of changing from an expatriate pastor to a German pastor will no longer exist. Germans will have been in leadership positions from the beginning of the church plant.
Less frustration will result. The number one frustration among missionaries in Germany is dealing with how long the church planting task may take. It can often be a slow process. By working on multiple church plants, or training lay church planters, results are realized much faster.
Conflicts are minimized. Judgments on doctrinal issues, when and if they arise, are made by the denominational leadership, not by the church planter.
Culturally-relevant congregations will emerge. The danger of starting a North American church no longer exists. Church planter mentors assist the Germans in starting their church.
THE BIBLICAL MODEL OF THE EXPATRIATE CHURCH PLANTER
It is important to look at the Apostle Paul’s two-pronged church planting strategy. First, he never worked alone. Some who worked with Paul stayed on location, while others traveled with him. There was variety. Second, he did not stay long in any one location. In fact, his longest stay was a two-and-a-half-year mission in Ephesus (Acts 19). His goal was to win converts and when he did that, he would leave, returning only later to appoint leaders and check on the new community of believers (Acts 14:21-23).
This observation from Acts in no way proves that one church planting method is better than another. Those who stay for a longer period of time at a church plant are no less church planters than Paul. However, it seems we should employ Paul’s strategy of short-term visits, rather than staying in a church plant for an extended amount of time. Given the present climate in Germany, church planters need to team with German Christians and limit their time at one particular church plant. While working as a church planting consultant for several years with the German Baptists, I used the above model to help two churches get started within a short period of time. I worked with both church plants simultaneously and made it clear that I was not the pastor; rather, I was only there to assist them in areas where they needed help, such as evangelism and leadership development.
There are many mission agencies in Germany doing evangelistic work. These efforts should be directly connected to starting new churches. Mission agencies involved in church planting need a paradigm shift in how they do their work. Although pioneer church planter may sound more exciting than church planter mentor, the latter describes what church planters need to be doing in Germany.
Is it too late for sending agencies to respond to the changes in Germany? Probably. Experience teaches that it’s easier to turn a battleship in a swimming pool than to change an entire organization. History shows that movements come and go.
The German church growth movement of the 1980s has long since peaked and run out of steam. The German church planting movement will also come to an end. So have we, as missionaries, missed the boat too? No. Individual church planters can still make a difference. As experienced church planters, we can seek out German denominations that already have a church planting strategy in process. We can offer to train and mentor lay church planters for the denomination. In so doing, we multiply our ministry opportunities.
Germany’s new openness to church planting is an answer to prayer from a faithful God. It is something God has done through his mercy in response to the prayers of his people. We need to seriously consider how we should respond.
1. These statistics were the result of an unscientific survey conducted by the Protestant Church Service in Württemberg, Germany by the Weltanschaungsbeauftragter. The person who made the survey estimates the number of churches to be much higher (personal correspondence, April 2003, available from author).
“1.500 ‘neue’ evangelische Gemeinden.” 1999. Idea-Spektrum 36 (September), p. 6.
Aschoff, Friedrich; Eickoff, Klaus; and Jörg Knoblauch, eds. 1992. Gemeindegründung in der Volkskirche-Modelle der Hoffnung. Brendow, Germany: Buch Kunst Verlag.
Brock, Charles. 1981. The Principles and Practice of Indigenous Church Planting. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press.
“In Deutschland wurden in den letzten zehn Jahre mehr als 1.500 neue Gemeinden gegründet.” 2004. Idea-Spektrum 25 (July), p. 16.
“Wir wollen in 25 Jahren die Zahl der Gemeinden verdoppeln.” 2004. Idea-Spektrum 25 (July), p. 18-19.
Fred McRae, a missionary in Germany since 1986, is a church planting consultant for the German Baptists in southwest Germany with Greater Europe Mission.
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