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Today’s multicultural European society seeks to integrate the foreigner yet often fails because of the differences that exist between cultures. We believe that this is a challenge that God is putting in front of the churches of today.
The Karlsruhe Free Evangelical Church (FeG) is a relatively young church in the second largest city of Baden-Württemberg in southwest Germany. It began with just twenty local people in 1991 but by 2000 had grown to approximately 170 members. Since its beginnings the church has had a strong emphasis on home groups.
From around 2002 a number of Latin American Christians started to attend and in response to this the church began a Spanish-speaking home group. The language and distinct culture of this home group attracted others, not all of them believers; some with a religious background but others with none.
One of the characteristics of the Spanish-speaking home group was its missionary character, since the believers were always inviting their friends to come along. And since the group met in homes, the religious prejudices that might have existed were not the problem they could have been.
Sometime later, a monthly Spanish-speaking service began in the church building. The meetings were always on Saturdays so as not to interfere with the Sunday worship gatherings.
At the beginning the Spanish-speaking group comprised of Latin Americans who were in Germany for a number of reasons: for work, study or because they were married to Germans. Becoming part of a German church allowed them to meet German Christians and familiarise themselves with German culture but also grow in their faith without language problems.
One of the most important steps that the church took to help the integration of Spanish-speakers was to offer simultaneous translation of the Sunday services, Alpha course and other activities. The church purchased translation equipment and this led to a greater participation of Spanish-speakers in the church services and activities.
The work among Spanish-speakers grew rapidly and in 2009 the church decided to employ a part-time Spanish-speaking pastor to support this ministry. The vision was always to integrate the Spanish-speaking ministry fully into the church, not as a church within the church. The Spanish-speaking pastor therefore became a member of the pastoral team along with the two general pastors and the youth pastor.
A consequence of integrating these Spanish-speaking members into the life of the church was an increased openness of the German believers to receive other foreigners. As a result more and more people from other parts of the world began to join the church, which in turn made it necessary to offer simultaneous translation of the gatherings into English, since the majority of the foreigners who visited the church didn’t speak either German or Spanish but did speak English.
The arrival of a missionary family to work with refugees and asylum seekers in the city only increased the church’s international ministry. A work group was established to support the integration and spiritual growth of the non-Spanish-speakers.
Why would a foreigner be interested in joining a German church? For a variety of reasons. Many come to the church as a result of an invitation by a friend. Others are from a Christian background and are looking for a church where there is translation to help them understand the service. Most strikingly are those who come to the church looking for friendship with Germans or to learn to integrate better into German society. Whatever the reasons, students and workers from 55 countries and nearly 30 different languages and from all different walks of life have come through the church over the last few years.
We must recognise that foreigners in general suffer from loneliness. Away from their homeland, their family and their friends, they often feel alone and need friendship. We see this as a huge opportunity that the church can be a spiritual refuge but also meet their family and social needs.
Though the work of the FeG Karlsruhe has grown rapidly over the last few years, this hasn’t meant that problems or mistakes that have not been made.
One of the first lessons we learned is that language isn’t the only barrier in working with foreigners. Evidently language is a significant obstacle in verbal communication but when it comes to intercultural communication it is just the tip of the iceberg. People from other cultures may think and live very differently to the way that we do. For example, the German language is very direct and so is the culture in general. People get straight to the point without talking around the topic since the culture is oriented towards efficiency and timeliness. In the eyes of some foreigners this directness can seem very rude.
For a Latin American friendliness and giving time for people is very important and not to do so is offensive. So if when a Latin American arrives at the church, no one is friendly or stops to give them some of their time and attention, they may well never return. Or conversely if they go straight to the point without bearing in mind these cultural factors, they may be offended and disappear.
On one occasion, one of the leaders of the church’s international ministry didn’t understand why some of the foreigners, who he had invited to an activity and had said they would participate, didn’t turn up. In German culture, when someone says they will attend an event, they will put it into their diary so they don’t forget it and can plan accordingly. In many other cultures where friendliness is highly valued, an invitation will be accepted even when the person has no interest in attending, or the concept of living by a diary or organising life is done differently. There are many people who never use a diary or calendar since their lives are not as structured or planned as the life of typical German. Meetings are easily forgotten and as a result it is necessary to remind people frequently of upcoming events, especially if time has passed since the original invitation.
And sometimes insisting on the invitation is a sign of genuine interest and something which is highly valued, so as a consequence the person will make a special effort to attend. It is fundamental therefore for those who work with people from other cultures to invest time in getting to know this other culture and try to understand the way they think.
Our vision as a church is to integrate the foreigner into our congregation, to give them space to live their culture (through home groups in other languages and encouraging the international groups to organise their own activities), but maintaining the unity of the church (a single membership and one united worship service with translation) since this is a sign of both our diversity but also our unity as the body of Christ where “there is neither Jew nor Gentile… for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Of course it would be easier to work with just one monocultural church but for today’s multicultural European society, one that seeks to integrate the foreigner yet often fails because of the differences that exist between cultures, we believe that this is a challenge that God is putting in front of the churches of today. What globalisation cannot achieve the Church is able to do in the power of the Spirit of God.
René Mansilla, pastor FeG Karlsruhe
This article appeared in the January 2017 edition of Vista magazine.