Ali* and her husband Richard are pastoring a church in north Berlin, Germany, where they live with their four children and serve with European Christian Mission (ECM). Richard and Ali minister in both German and English, reflecting the diversity of Berlin, which is a global hub for artists and musicians, and a key migrant destination.
We’ve all had strange journeys these past couple of years. If someone was to ask me what it was like starting a church in our city, at this time in history, I would reply: “blood, sweat and tears while riding a rollercoaster!” So that implies at least some fun along the way!
We spent the first six years here alongside a new church, and last year we had a tearful goodbye service. It took place in a park, pouring with rain, with social distancing and of course, no music. What was a really significant service, felt like it had a big (literal) wet blanket pulled over it! Despite this, it was an emotional but blessed time and we were humbled by the words spoken by people who had become so dear to us. How can you leave a church community when you are not allowed to hug anyone? They prayed for us as we set out to seek God’s will for us in our own neighbourhood.
At this stage, we weren’t sure if we were meant to start a church or simply work alongside one that was already established, however, as we continued to gather with our immediate family on Sunday mornings, slowly more people came to join us.
What does God want with us here?
Our plan at this time was to take time out to really focus on language study outside of ministry, however, soon the lockdown became much more extreme and all the language courses we had enrolled in were all cancelled. We knew we needed more help with our language and it soon became difficult to even meet with any native speakers just to chat. With the cold winter months descending, our connection with the language dwindled and we felt so frustrated. Church was back online and it was such an effort to make our online meetings enjoyable. What does God want with us here?
Encouragingly, a young single missionary joined us as she was looking for a church to support in the neighbourhood. We enjoyed the fellowship with her every week, reading through the book of Acts (of course!). Having come from one of the biggest churches in the United States, it must have been strange for her to come to our ‘micro church!’ (which is one of 80 church start-ups that ECM has in progress throughout Europe).
Another young Arts student became our other regular ‘one permitted’ person for dinner each week. We watched her blossom in her newfound trust in Jesus, as she wrestled with us through issues to do with the militant feminism she had known – which could be called a major ‘religion’ in this city.
As the restrictions were lifted, we started meeting back in our apartment and our longing for a church space grew. Praise God that a lovely room became available on Sundays and we started renting it, despite knowing that with our family, we would only be allowed two other adults, with masks and social distancing. But the joy of being together was fantastic. So when someone asked us if they could visit our church, we had to say sorry but not yet!
As restrictions lifted, so did the masks and so did the distancing. Soon others joined us and others dipped their toes in. A lesbian couple came for a peek, a Puerto-Rican single mum came and stayed for good. A Welsh Buddhist man found his heart warmed as we talked about Jesus, a German believer found respite with us (while dealing with a very angry ex-husband), a young Russian single guy hangs around on the fringes, an actress who we met in the music scene is fascinated with us as we don’t fit into her ‘Christian’ or ‘church’ categories. She comes to church because she loves Australians! We’re happy to play that card for the sake of the gospel!
European cities are microcosms of the world. “How are you dealing with the culture shock?” I hear you ask. “Which culture are you referring to?” I have to respond.
The next chapter
True to our rollercoaster ride, our lovely room we were meeting in for church was suddenly taken away after four months because, like many small start-up companies during COVID, the business we were sharing with collapsed. So we were left homeless once more.
As we were enjoying the beautiful Berlin summer at the time, we gathered in the local park. We laughed together that it made us feel like we really were homeless! My husband happened to be teaching on the parable of the four soils that week, so it seemed very fitting to be outdoors, especially as our kids’ group went around the park gathering the four different soils that Jesus speaks of.
As the weather became unpredictable, we started meeting back in our home again. By this time our lovely American missionary had left to get married, having only once seen the church she had really invested in actually meet in person. As for the others, our young new believing student is firmly established as a core church team member and has started her own Bible study, reaching out to university students. Our Puerto-Rican single mum tells us that “finally she’s found her church”, and is established as someone who serves the church with the way she prays for people. The Russian man has slowly lost interest and we hardly see him anymore. The German actress continues to come along sporadically on Sundays, yet she loves to meet as part of our women’s Bible study every week, which she hosts in her home. The lesbian couple hasn’t braved church again but they are happy to come over for dinner. Our first family has made our church their own with their little baby.
The Lord is lifting our eyes to see his beautiful ‘forest’ coming to life around us.
As I write, we have just gained status as an official ‘church in development’ with the denomination we are working with here. So even though we get fixated on the ‘trees’ that crowd into our days, the Lord is lifting our eyes to see his beautiful ‘forest’ coming to life around us.
As we continued to pray as a church for a room to meet in, we were curious to see an empty shop space literally across the road from our apartment. Was God moving us to have a bigger perspective than just a Sunday meeting? How would our small church be able to afford rent for the whole week?
The Lord could be leading us to connect to the neighbourhood through a ‘business as mission’ model (setting up a business can be a way of reaching the neighbourhood and/or establishing legitimacy through serving the community). It seemed that the door was closed when the real estate agent informed us that they were in discussion with another party … only to come back a week later to open the door to us! It’s far from being a done deal, but there’s certainly a new chapter unfolding. Just another turn on the rollercoaster!
The difficulties in church planting can seem so consuming that sometimes it feels like you are a small boat, without a rudder, tossed in the ocean. Perhaps the pandemic has made that feeling more acute, but perhaps that’s just the normal pattern for stepping into the unknown with God. We need to remind ourselves regularly that it’s his church and he is doing his thing. Amazingly, he works through us.
*Surname withheld for security reasons