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A presentation made at Missionworks in Cleveland, OH on October 2, 2008
This is our 4th time of returning to the US after serving in the former communist East Germany, and since it is our last time to do itineration for the Global Ministries, it is of particular meaning for us to reflect, with the guidance of the holy spirit, on these last 15 years being a part of, observing and learning from the churches in the former Communist East Germany. When we arrived there on January 1, 1993, we found the churches in the east in a great uproar. First of all, when the wall fell, the society changed drastically around the church and everyone was trying to grasp what this meant and where this was heading. The church in the GDR (the former East Germany) had played a vital part in the peaceful revolution that brought about the fall of the wall. There would be gatherings in churches where the revolution would be discussed and the people streamed out of them with candles lit - into the streets, responding to the lessons that were taught on non-violent conflict resolution.
But after the wall – what was their role? What kind of a society was this being created around them? Things were too new and happening too fast to keep up! And then they had to figure out all the new technologies practically overnight that we in the west had had the opportunity to gradually adjust to. It didn't help that the church in West Germany had, in some people's minds, simply taken over their eastern church and the pastors had to learn all the new laws and regulations placed upon them by their wealthy and powerful brothers and sisters in the west. Add to that 52 years of state atheism, with discrimination against church members and the revelations of who specifically had been spying for the secret police all those years. The wounds were deep and the level of mistrust was high. How can a church recover from so much and become the missionary- minded serving body of Christ when she had suffered so much?
Well, we were graced to be a help and a witness to the power of God in rather dark times. We can witness to the experience that because the fellowship of the saints is what it is, and the power of God so great, we all managed not only to overcome, but to thrive!
Working together with the other pastors and other members of the churches, we helped expand and deepen fellowship within the congregations, by, for example, introducing weekly coffee and tea fellowship times after Sunday worship, monthly Sunday luncheons, developing and leading youth and young adults' groups and assisting small congregational groups as they assumed responsibility for particular worship services.
We assisted in the development of lay leadership, by encouraging and enabling parishioners from different generations, through various means, to become more involved and take responsibility in the life of the church. In part through our encouragement, many of the young adults whom we had reached and with whom we had developed relationships, ended up committing themselves to participating in the decision-making bodies of their congregations and/or joining project-oriented committees and teams, for example.
We helped create a greater "culture of appreciation", in order to openly express gratitude, positively reinforce the efforts active members had already undertaken and to encourage others to follow in their footsteps. We helped the congregations pursue mission by, for instance, developing a mission statement, preaching sermons with clear connections to contemporary life, motivating and equipping people to share their faith experiences and views with others, and supporitng those who felt compelled to make innovative contributions to worship.
15 years after we began our ministry over there, our view of critical presence in that region has now changed. The situation in eastern Germany's churches is now comparatively stable. They have learned how to function in the new society and have become much more mission-minded and, in our opinion, the clergy has generally become more effective and responsive in dealing with the laity. There are, however, insights that we, both the North American churches and those within the former Communist "East Bloc", can still derive from one another, both today and into the future, through continued intensive ecumenical exchange.
Precisely because their churches and societies are, in many ways, more similar to our own, there are certain lessons that churches in the industrialized world can best learn through an awareness of each other's experiences. Due to the adverse effects of 52 years of state atheism and the recent attainment of a socio-economic level similar to our own, for example, the churches of eastern Germany can impart lessons to us, relating to the life of a church in a minority position in a technologically highly-developed and secularized society.
The nature of the ecumenical relationship entailed in such a learning process is, however, in some ways different from our relationships with ecumenical partners in less developed countries, in which our financial and material assistance play a major role. Although we in the industrialized world can indeed be enriched through exposure to the spiritual vitality and richness of churches in parts of the world such as Latin America, Asia and Africa, and although we in the more developed nations can also come to a greater appreciation of the material benefits we enjoy, as we seek to share some of our financial and material bounty with people in less developed countries, Lisa and I feel that a cautionary note may be in order.
If we were to devote too much of our ecumenical attention to people living in less developed countries (or LDCs), we might run the risk of reinforcing widely-held assumptions of U.S. superiority, assumptions which could foster complacency here at home. We must take care not to allow our exposure to the even more extreme and crushing poverty found in the LDCs to lead us to downplay the plight of the poor within our own borders. Intense exposure to and understanding of other strong democracies in our global economy give us not only a greater awareness of social ills that we may have grown accustomed to in our own country and do not shock us anymore, but it also offers varieties of solutions, when we can no longer see the forest through the trees in this country. There is still a lot that we can learn from the experiences and the perspectives of the so-called "Old World."
On another note, we also believe that there is something tremendously wanting in this "country of immigrants", and that is a deeper connection to history. Our country often acts as though the world began in 1776, and that any history before that is irrelevant and a distraction – and, at worst – unpatriotic to think about. This brings with it an unconscious sense of instability and lack of deep cultural roots. And on top of that, there has been too little emphasis on reconciliation or atonement for the crimes our forefathers committed against both the Native Americans, whom they overran and displaced, and against the Africans, whom we kidnapped and forced to make a considerable contribution to this country's economic development, through many generations of slave labor.
We, as a country, need to focus on our sins more honestly and call them the sins that they were. There would not be such racial issues between the European-Americans and African- Americans, if there had been intense, long-term national admissions and discussions, dealing with the crimes of our forefathers. There would not be such fear in this country, if we knew that we as a nation have dealt justly with each other and the rest of the world.
Being in Germany has given us insights into the intense efforts that the church and the majority of the populace in that country has taken to understand, atone for and learn from the sins committed during the so-called "Third Reich." The Church in the former GDR has made tremendous efforts at examining wounds and attempting to "dress" them. Both the persecution of Christians, as well as the complicity of some Christians, during the Nazi and Communist dictatorships, have been openly discussed. As a result, the eastern German churches have become very strong and confident in saying no to things that they can clearly see may jeopardize their integrity. Take their criticism of and lack of willingness to commit troops to the war in Iraq as one clear witness to the work they have done to learn from their past.
So, in conclusion, I would encourage us all to keep track of future developments in the German Churches! The peaceful fall of the wall is a more recent amazing example of a non-violent revolution, every bit as significant as the successes of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr.. I predict that the German Churches, and North American churches such as ours, will be leaders in bringing about non-violent conflict resolutions in the future!