Issue No. 3
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ.
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Tes. 1:2).
Advent season is rapidly approaching. The name Advent comes from the Latin words, advenire (to come to) & adventus (an arrival), and refers to Christ's coming into this world. It is that period of the year during which the Church requires the faithful to prepare for the celebration of the feast of Christmas, the anniversary of the birth and coming of Jesus Christ. It is entirely appropriate that the mystery of that great day has the honour of being prepared for by prayer and works of penance.
The focus of Advent is by no means limited to just that of Christ's first coming. An equal, if not more important theme found in the Advent Liturgy, is the Second Coming of Christ when He comes again to judge the world.
We are very pleased to publish in this issue of our Ecumenical Letter on Evangelism, an article entitled ‘Creative Ways to Reach Out’ written by one of my predecessors at the World Council of Churches, the German pastor, the Rev. Dr. Gerhard Linn. He shares with us some thoughts from East Berlin, on fresh ways to voice ecumenically the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, by highlighting the importance of active involvement in the local community. “…Participation –he says—is a key word for communicating the gospel in our situation”. We are grateful to Dr. Linn, for sharing his interesting and helpful reflections.
This current issue of the Letter will be the last one I publish, since I will be changing my role and responsibilities in the WCC by serving in the areas of ecumenical spirituality and relations with Latin America and the Caribbean regions. I want to take this opportunity to thank God for this exciting challenge of serving in the area of evangelism and to thank each one of you, for your support, prayers and encouragement!
We pray for this time of Advent to be an opportunity to renew our commitment with the Lord, to proclaim anew, the always relevant and hopeful message of the kingdom.
Carlos Emilio Ham
CREATIVE WAYS TO REACH OUT
This letter comes from East Berlin, in other words, from the part of Germany that spent forty years under communist rule. Even now, 16 years after the collapse of the system, the effects of that period continue to make themselves felt in the almost total de-christianization of society in what are known as the “new” federal states, where around 80% of the population have no church or religious connection. There is almost total ignorance of everything to do with the Bible, so much so that the question “Who was Jesus?” will leave most people baffled.
This trend had been evident for a long time. In the 1970s my son was in his first year at school. His teacher, who was also the party secretary of the ruling “Socialist Unity Party” in the school, was talking to the children about the life of Lenin, whose 100th anniversary was being celebrated. At one point she told them about Lenin’s brother, an anarchist who was involved in an assassination attempt on the Czar, for which he was arrested, tried and executed. One child asked, “what does executed mean?” Before the teacher could answer my little boy stood up and said, “I know what that is. It’s like Jesus. He was executed too, he was crucified.” Another child stood up and asked, “Who is Jesus, then? Is he Lenin’s brother too?” Despite her communist-atheistic convictions the teacher was shocked to find that none of the children had even heard of Jesus, and told us about what had happened.
In the worldwide ecumenical movement we rejoice at the news of rapid growth in Christian churches in China and Africa, and note the amazing growth of Pentecostal churches in Latin America. But while we hear talk of a renaissance of religion in some countries in Europe, what we find among the majority of people in our country is a kind of immunity to anything that smacks of religion, a total lack of any sense of the transcendent. In this situation, traditional forms of evangelism based on biblical concepts such as sin, redemption and forgiveness certainly do not speak to people for whom these terms have at best a very diluted, secularised meaning, if any. How can the gospel nevertheless be brought to people in our context, in a way that will at least give them pause for thought?
We have lived for the last forty years on the eastern fringes of Berlin, in a relatively isolated row of new houses at the edge of the forest. It is a place where all the neighbours know one another. Of the ten families living in these houses we are the only ones who belong to the church. That’s how it was forty years ago and that’s how it is today, even after various deaths, departures and new arrivals. One autumn we invited all our neighbours to a ‘pot-luck’ meal in our garden. All thirty of them accepted. One family put up a large awning against the drizzle that was falling, another brought folding tables and chairs. We wondered how we should welcome them all; we couldn’t invite them to say grace. In the end my wife had a good idea. She told our guests that, as Christians, we regularly said the Lord’s prayer, which includes the request, “give us this day our daily bread”. She said that in his explanation of this petition, Martin Luther had included “true neighbours” as part of our “daily bread” and, as hosts, we were delighted to have them all as true neighbours. For us, this was a gift of God for which we are very grateful. A modest attempt.
During this meal one neighbour told us that through a friend in another part of Berlin she had joined a Gospel choir and had enjoyed singing with them ever since. At the time they were practising for a Christmas concert and she invited us all to come to it. So, about ten weeks later, we and some of our neighbours attended the concert that was being held in the Catholic Church in Berlin-Karlshorst. The joy of being part of this choir had brought our neighbour into contact with the message of Jesus, the saviour of humankind.
I would say that participation is a keyword for communicating the gospel in our situation. I suddenly remembered that, in a book that I edited in 1999 giving examples of missionary initiatives in local churches, there was an article by a parish minister about a Gospel choir in Eberswalde, a small town north of Berlin. Let me quote from it:
The Protestant church has always had a tradition of encouraging church music. With good reason, because singing spiritual music together links us to the content of the Bible and theological insights as well as linking us with one another in our congregations. It makes the Word speak to our hearts…
But the church in Germany is steadily losing touch with the broad, popular musical trends of our times; it dismisses them as entertainment, and church musicians who are trying to link in with them tend to be treated condescendingly or with outright disapproval. …
When we once again came up against this unfortunate state of affairs, we started to look for music that was both religious and popular. Like many others before us, we – that is, initially, my wife and myself – discovered the Gospel music of the African-American communities. As we got to know it better, it opened up a world of spiritual singing unlike anything to be found in Europe this century, involving spirit and body together with an intensity that is unknown in our tradition. Are our black brothers and sisters the only ones who can do this? The final impetus came from the film “Sister act”. We were determined to try it out, so we threw caution to the wind and put an advert in the local paper asking for anyone who wanted to sing Gospel with us. We also asked church musicians for help, but when we couldn’t find anyone ready to take on the leadership of a Gospel choir, I had to set about finding material for Gospel music myself.
For the first time in my experience an announcement in the newspaper brought people into the church wanting to sing religious texts with us. Our initial attempt to overcome barriers by using German failed miserably in face of protest from the assembled singers so, from our second rehearsal on, we sang only in English. It is perhaps worth reflecting why people in Germany should choose English as the language in which to sing spiritual songs. For our part we faced up to this task as well and, feeling our way into it, having our English constantly corrected by members of the choir, we started singing.
Far more people responded to the newspaper announcement than we would have expected in a small town like Eberswalde, and many of them left again quite quickly. But a small nucleus of singers remained some of whom had never set foot in a church nor sung in a choir before. For others, church membership was a distant memory. Even now and then, new people would turn up out of curiosity; some stayed, some left, but the Eberswalde Gospel Choir was on its way. Contrary to our initial expectations, the choir members were not youngsters but people in the 20 – 50 age group who are often more difficult to reach. One or two younger people have joined in the meantime, however. In its two-and-a-half years of existence the choir has grown in strength to about 25 singers and even today it still brings us into touch with people we never meet in our parish work. The Gospel music has the power to draw people together, so that members who are long-term unemployed sing side by side with business managers, non-believers who have no wish to belong to any church stand next to committed Christians from a broad ecumenical spectrum, even including charismatic Christians.
We do not aspire to found a top-quality choir capable of giving a perfect interpretation of this great art; the most important thing is the joy of singing this spiritual music, its rhythm, the companionship in the group and the concerts in the congregation. Choir festivals and rehearsals and the intervals in rehearsals are important moments for contacts and friendship. What proved the most difficult for all of us was to get away from the intellectually detached mode of singing that is usual in Germany and learn to take up not just the notes and the text but also the movement of Gospel music, leaving room for the improvisation and infectious enthusiasm that can carry others along with it when they hear it. The reason why many people like to sing Gospel is precisely because the singing spills over into movement….
In services of worship in particular, movement introduces a new and much freer feeling to the devotions. The Christmas evening service with a nativity play and the Gospel choir are a special favourite and quite a lot of people are ready to put up with our somewhat unattractive church building in order to share in a Christmas service of this kind. Other parish work has also benefited visibly from the Gospel choir, with a number of baptisms and church memberships resulting from the choir’s work.
Lastly, just a word about the texts of the Gospel songs. Is English really such a barrier? Obviously it is for many people, which is why we usually distribute leaflets with the German translations among the audience. We want the meaning to be in no doubt…
(from Hans-Peter Giering: “Gospel Choir – The Message meets the People” in Gerhard Linn: “Schritte der Hoffnung”, Neukirchener Verlag, 1999, p. 216 ff)
The author of this report is still the pastor in Eberswalde. He told me recently that the Gospel choir there is still active and, indeed, that it has doubled in strength in the meantime. At present, rehearsals are in full swing for a visit to America on the invitation of the United Church of Christ /USA, which is the partner church of our regional church, for a concert tour in a number of parishes in the State of Wisconsin.
Participation is also the keyword for another project that I would like to tell you about: In our district of Berlin-Friedrichshagen, besides the large congregation of the (regional) Lutheran church and a small Roman Catholic church, there is also a very active Baptist congregation. As is its custom every year, this congregation last year again wanted to stage a nativity play for Christmas, but they found that they did not have enough children in the congregation to do so. The children who had been in the play in previous years were now teenagers and felt they were too old to take part in a play like that. So what was to be done?
Here too an appeal for players was made through an advert in a local paper. They announced “auditions for a Christmas play” indicating when and where children could attend (preferably accompanied by their parents) to audition for a role in the play. An astonishing number turned up, some even from other parts of the city. The organizers decided from the start that they would all be given a part – the number of shepherds and angels is extendable, after all. But the casting process was conducted quite professionally, and an application form with a photo was made out for every child.
Then came the day of the first rehearsal, and it became clear (as was to be expected) that very few of the children had any idea what the Christmas story was about. Their only reason for “auditioning” was the chance to act in it. So before the rehearsals could begin, the organizers first had to tell the children the Christmas story and introduce them to the person of Jesus whose birth in the stable in Bethlehem is celebrated at Christmas.
The play they had learned was performed during the church service on Christmas Eve. All the parents and relatives of the children acting in it were there – even one grandmother who, right till the last minute, had been grumbling about a church “take over” of her grandchildren.
The Christmas service and nativity play were recorded on video and, a couple of weeks later, the children who had taken part in it and their families were invited to watch the video together and discuss the experience with the church staff.
Another possibility that some local churches have found helpful in approaching people outside the congregation and inviting them to become involved is to organize a street fair or to take part in local festivals, perhaps with an open-air service (e.g. on the marketplace). Regular Martinmas celebrations are another possibility. In this part of Germany where the Reformer Martin Luther was chiefly active the name day of the saint venerated by the Catholic church, who shared his famous cloak with a beggar, is also widely popular among Protestants. For ecumenically open-minded Christians his festival is a welcome opportunity for Protestant and Catholic churches to act together in public in their local community.
This quotation from a report from a small town in central Germany is an example:
In September 1993, shortly after I had been inducted into my charge as a Lutheran pastor, a suggestion came from the local Catholic church that we should celebrate St Martin’s Day together. In a preparatory group we laid the basis of our Martinmas celebration which has changed very little since. In 1993, the order was as follows:
In 1994 we moved the start to the Catholic old people’s home and then went in procession to the Protestant church (where we had just one or two songs, a time of silence and the Lord’s prayer together), before moving on to the bonfire in the manse garden and then into the manse…Our biggest problem has always been the number of people. In the last two years we have had some 170 children and adults, some of them from as far as 30km away. Because the Catholic chapel is now too small we have moved the St Martin play out of doors to the grounds of the Protestant church…The singing round the bonfire has become specially important in recent years and we sing mainly action songs…At the St Martin’s Day celebrations we are constantly surprised at how many mothers come with their children for this particular festival, even though they do not belong to either the Catholic or the Protestant congregation…At the preparatory stage it is important every year to hand out copies of the recipe for the Martinmas cookies and encourage the mothers to bake them…
(From Andreas Breit. “St Martin’s Day in Sandau” in “Schritte der Hoffnung”)
For the past two-and-a-half years we have had a “worship group” in our Lutheran church in Berlin-Friedrichshagen. At first this group concentrated on encouraging members of the congregation to get together to prepare and lead a Sunday service at regular intervals. These groups were free to plan the service around a theme that they found important and were not required to follow the church’s liturgical calendar. The idea of organizing worship in this way goes back to a pioneering “Letter on Evangelism” from Geneva as far back as 1967, written by Walter Hollenweger and entitled “The liturgist as producer”. Our reason for planning worship in this way was to make people understand that our worship is a community act where there can be dialogue and encounter between the business of everyday life and the biblical message, in a way that gives guidance and help for the practice of our faith in our situation.
But this did not yet take us beyond the familiar circle of our own congregation. The question was how to reach beyond that circle to bring the gospel to the people in our local community and show them that it is also relevant to their lives, believing that the gospel applies to all realms of life (cf. the second “ecumenical conviction” in the Ecumenical Affirmation on Mission and Evangelism published by the WCC in 1982). One day, a member of the worship group suggested that we should approach the men of the voluntary fire brigade and ask them if they might like to hold a service with us, focussing on their important work and praying for it.
The person who had had the idea visited the team leader of the local volunteer fire brigade to sound him out, and a date was fixed for four members of our worship group to meet a three-man delegation from the fire brigade for a longer conversation. They told us about their operations and how they had to be ready night and day to be called out to emergencies of all kinds, in addition to their regular jobs. Putting out fires was the least of it. Being on constant stand-by means that time with their families is also often interrupted - and all this voluntarily, for no payment. We suddenly realized that very few of the inhabitants of our area of the city were aware of all this, because there is also a much larger professional fire brigade as well.
When we talked to the men about holding a church service where they would be able to talk about their voluntary work so that we could pray for them in practical ways, they first pointed out that of the 25 men on the team, not one belonged to the church. They said that if that didn’t put us off they would be glad to talk about a church service with and for the fire brigade. Later it emerged that one of the younger men did belong to the Lutheran church and had recently had his child baptized. He became an important link when it came to preparing the service, a role he no doubt never dreamed of finding himself in.
Thereafter, the preparations took some time and, in the course of these, a few of the firemen set foot a church for the first time in their lives and we were able to explain things to them.
The service itself was attended by the great majority of the firemen in uniform, accompanied by their families, and the church was full. One of the men gave a short report on their work, to which our pastor responded with a sermon on Jeremiah 29:7 “But seek the welfare of the city …., and pray to the Lord on its behalf”. For the prayers, the firemen had agreed among themselves at one of their meetings on a list of concerns, which we had formulated as prayers – in sections - that the congregation could take up as they wished. We wanted to make it clear that we were not forcing them to pray with us but that we were praying for them in practical ways.
Many animated discussions took place after the service during the church coffee hour. The reaction to this service has encouraged us to persevere in the same direction. As our next project we plan to hold a service with and for teachers, focussing on the role of the school from the teachers’ point of view. A first tentative discussion has taken place with three teachers, and others are planned.
I shall finish here in the hope that I have been able to give readers in other parts of the world some idea of what it can mean to communicate the gospel in our situation. Please pray for us and for all those to whom we owe it to preach the gospel.
Berlin, 26 May 2006 Gerhard Linn