German Baptists describe booming churches, enjoy partnership with SWBTS
The Old World met the New World when a delegation from the Bibelseminar, Bonn, (BSB) — a Bible seminary founded by Russian-German Baptists and Mennonites, and located in the town of Bornheim, Germany — came to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Jan. 25-Feb. 1. The German delegation was in Texas to tour the Southwestern campus, meet with its president and faculty, and strengthen the partnership the two seminaries launched in 2005.
The 16-member group was comprised mostly of Baptist and Mennonite pastors who serve on the BSB’s board of trustees. They included BSB professors and a German Christian youth magazine editor. Heinrich Derksen, president of the BSB, organized the trip and led the delegation.
Derksen said that the trip was intended, in part, to foster a network of conservative evangelicals in Germany with likeminded believers in America. He indicated that the members of the German delegation were “very comfortable” with Southern Baptists and the beliefs set out in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.
“I hope these pastors will see that we are not alone in the world,” Derksen said. He said that some BSB trustees are curious about Southwestern Seminary and need to see for themselves the facilities and leaders of their overseas ministry partner.
In 2003, Derksen approached Southwestern Seminary with the idea of a partnership to teach accredited master’s-level classes in Germany. He met with President Paige Patterson just a few months after Patterson became president of the Texas seminary.
In the fall of 2005, Southwestern Seminary inaugurated a Master of Arts in theology program at the BSB. Southwestern trustees elected two, resident, full-time professors to teach at the BSB: Friedhelm Jung and Helmuth Pehlke.
“Some board members ask, ‘Why does Southwestern want to be our partner?’” Derksen said. “Now they will understand that [Southwestern] wants to be part of mission work and what God is doing in Germany.”
Delegates reported that Russian-German Baptist and Mennonite churches in Germany are filled to capacity, with members and visitors alike arriving early to get a seat. What began as churches for Russian-German believers has expanded to reach the native German population and beyond.
Delegates’ descriptions of Russian-German Baptist or Mennonite church services with 500, 900, or 1,000 members and visitors in attendace were not unusual. One of the German delegates was Jakob Görzen, the pastor of a church in Cologne and a lecturer in youth ministry and ecclesiology at the BSB. During the delegation’s visit with Billie Hanks, founder of the International Evangelism Association and a long-time supporter of Southwestern Seminary and the BSB, Görzen described his church.
“We have 500 members, but over 700 people in attendance each Sunday,” Görzen said through an interpreter. “God is sending the mission field to us: There are 17 nations represented in our church; 10 percent are not of Russian background at all. Fifty percent are second generation Russian-Germans who have grown up in Germany; these are bringing in their German friends.”
Görzen, whose account typified those of the other delegates, described Cologne as a “multinational city of more than 180 nations.” He said Muslims and Jews who live there are listening to the gospel and many are coming to know Christ. He said there are, for example, Russian-speaking churches being planted among Jews repatriating from Russia. Görzen said often secular German Jews come to accept Christ, then afterward rediscover and gain a new appreciation for their Jewish roots.
“We see the young generation is open to the gospel,” Görzen added. “They are looking for values, family and religion that is alive. When we make the effort to evangelize, they come.”
BSB board member Nokolai Reimer is pastor of a 900-member Mennonite church in Lemgo, a town of some 41,000 people located 120 miles northeast of Bonn. He, too, described church services where total attendance routinely exceeded enrolled membership, and where discipleship has led to evangelism and missions both in Germany and throughout the world.
“We have about 200 young people in our church,” Reimer said. “Our church supports church plants in Malawi, Haiti, Siberia and Germany.”
“Germans are very disappointed in the official state church,” said Heinrich Friesen, BSB trustee and pastor of a church in Lichtenau in eastern Germany near Dresden. “When they come to an evangelical church, they are surprised to see a packed building. They are used to seeing a big building with no people inside. So, now they think something must be happening.”
Hanks encouraged the German delegation to make discipleship a priority as their churches grow. He said that the experience of many large churches in America is too many new converts are not found in attendance six months or a year later.
“As churches evangelize and grow, more people come in from diverse backgrounds and have a harder time integrating into the church,” Hanks told the BSB delegation. “People in our churches need love, friendship, prayer partners; they need to learn to study the Bible and share their faith.”
Later, the German delegation was challenged and encouraged by James T. “Jimmy” Draper Jr., immediate past president of Lifeway Christian Resources, at a dinner hosted by William “Dub” Jackson, founder of Partnership Evangelism.
Derksen and Wilhelm Daiker, director of the International Center for World Missions (ICW) based in Germany, are organizing a partnership with Dub Jackson and Partnership Evangelism to bring American pastors to Germany to work with churches in the Russian-German Convention this summer. The American participants will be grouped into 6-10 member teams that will follow the lead of German church leaders to conduct evangelism throughout the country.
“We come to be your servants. We come to share the one thing that does bring us together, and that is Jesus Christ,” Draper told the delegation. “We may never agree on economics … governmental policies … or on everything theological. But we do believe and we do agree that Jesus Christ is the only answer for the world’s needs … We have the message, and to know the message is to be obligated to share it. And so together we share Jesus Christ.”
Daiker thanked Draper and Jackson, and said that even though evangelicals in Germany are a relatively small part of the whole population, they are growing.
The BSB was started in 1993 when the leaders of burgeoning Russian-German Baptist and Mennonite churches saw the need to train the next generation of preachers, teachers and missionaries. Derksen, 36, whose parents repatriated from Russia to Germany when he was a child, became president of the BSB six years ago. He pastors a church in Cologne, and for the time being chairs the BSB’s board of trustees.
Derksen is passionate about uniting the Baptist and Mennonite churches in Germany in a cooperative network to advance missions and pastoral training. He said that many of the pastors in the delegation do not know each other very well even though their churches are similar and they serve together on the board of the BSB. Another purpose of the delegation’s trip to America was to draw these German leaders together.
“Baptists and Mennonites are the largest group of evangelicals in Germany, but we are splintered into 13 small conventions … We have 450 churches, and 200 of them belong to those 13 conventions,” Derksen said. “Mennonites and Baptists are very similar in Germany. In fact, some Mennonite churches in Russia are part of Baptist unions … The biggest difference is probably the Mennonite teachings on pacifism, but otherwise there are very few differences.”
Derksen said that the Russian-German pastors were intrigued by the history and impact of the Cooperative Program described by SBC Exective Committee President Morris Chapman when he visited the BSB last October.
“Perhaps that could be an idea for our churches one day,” Derksen said.
In the spring 2007 issue of Southwestern Seminary’s quarterly magazine, Southwestern News, a series of articles described the history of Russian-German Baptists and Mennonites and the development of the BSB. In an article written by seminary President Patterson, he described how German immigrants to Russia preserved a conservative view of scripture during a time when theological liberalism was being birthed in Germany and taking over the rest of Europe.
Patterson wrote: “The first ancestors of the Russian-Germans to immigrate to Russia arrived there at a time when Bible-believing Christians were persecuted in Europe and invited by Catherine the Great to come to Russia in the 18th century. During World War II many of their descendants tried to return to Germany, but were taken back against their will by the Russian armies when Germany was partitioned. By whatever means, the German Baptists in Russia found themselves scattered from the Ukraine to Vladivostok, and from the Baltic Sea to Kirgistan. Everywhere they went they reestablished their churches and worshipped the Lord Christ, never expecting how bad a persecution they would have to suffer. But persecution often has a salutary effect on the people of God. Under the pressure of communism and atheism, the Russian-speaking German Baptists and Mennonites found that their faith was strong and their resistance to the threats of Marxism was really quite successful.”
Patterson described how world events allowed many of these Russian-German Baptists and Mennonites to return to Germany. Upon their return, they discovered that years of liberal theology from philosophers and theologians such as Gotthold Lessing, Johann Goethe, Friedrich Schiller and Rudolf Bultmann had caused Christian churches back in their homeland to become anemic and compromised. So, they started their own churches, preaching the gospel, calling people to the cross and sending them out as missionaries.
Patterson has preached in some of the Russian-German churches that support the BSB. He compared the spirit of these assemblies to being “on the doorstep of Heaven.”
“The singing is celestial, the preaching resounds with biblical and prophetic mandate, prayer is fervent, and fellowship is sweet,” Patterson said. “The Spirit of God permeates the meetings, and the smile of God upon their program of world missions is obvious. The Lord God Almighty is clearly at work among these gentle spirits.”