July is the month we say goodbye to some regular writers who have aged out or are moving on to other projects. We’re extra thankful for Andrew today—he’s been writing with us since we started the blog in July 2013.
Of the to-dos that come with moving abroad, finding a church is the most vexing. More than grocery shopping, setting up a new bank account, even establishing a new circle of friends, the experience of finding a church abroad divorces one from one’s own habitual church contexts and associations and demands a challenging mix of theological and spiritual discipline, social fortitude and cultural flexibility.
I recently visited a Church of Christ congregated by African immigrants to Germany. In line with that church’s tithing custom (spiritual discipline) and summoning every measure of courage (social fortitude) I could, I danced my offering to the front of the sanctuary. I’m still not sure which feat of cultural flexibility was greater: my offertory dance, or the congregants forced to endure it.
In nearly four years of church shopping, I visited four congregations. They were vastly different in size, doctrine, and demographic, but each practiced a strong sense of neighbor. saw Syrian refugee families get baptized, sex workers find faith, schools be funded in India. These moments were a blessing, not just to their recipients but to me and the global Church. But four years later, I’m leaving Cologne unable to say I gained a true church home. Here are reflections on four churches I visited and a thought on what went wrong.
Germany’s institutional Protestant churches have only a modest presence in Catholic Cologne, but one of the more prominent congregations meets in my neighborhood. Named after Martin Luther, the church has a beautiful amber brick exterior that glows in summer dusk. The arched Byzantine interior with soft pastels. The rotating team of pastors includes a pony-tailed man who dresses in all black in and outside of the church and can barely hide the delight he takes in pushing the envelope while preaching.
During Karneval earlier this year he began his sermon by cueing Euro party hit “Living next door to Alice”, then climbed the stairs to the chancel just in time for the profane chorus. After the music had been dimmed, he took a contemplative breath, scanned the half-perplexed, half-delighted pews, and repeated the refrain for effect: „Alice, Alice, who the fuck is Alice?“
Beyond envelope-pushing, the church was reliable for a beautiful liturgy, including regular recitation of the creeds. Equally reliable but less edifying, its sermons almost exclusively railed against the sins of human neglect of the environment and anti-immigrant sentiment and pointed to a pie-in-the sky brand of hope and reconciliation that had little to do with the supernatural work of a Godman to save the structural and personal sins of man.
Then there was the church that meets in a movie theater. This place was cool. It had choreographed lights and a graphics team most pop bands would covet. Worship was led by a team of four fit young people aerobically navigating a stage with the lyrics of (mostly English) songs cast over drone footage of the Scottish isles on the movie screen. During three and half more or less unrewarding years navigating the Cologne dating scene, I occasionally wondered where all the young, beautiful Christians in Cologne are. It turns out they were here the whole time. Standing right here, arms extended, mouths moving inaudibly to the on-screen text because who no one really knows the melody, the song is in a language foreign to 95 percent of the congregants, and no one can hear anything besides the guitars anyways.
I spent most Sundays in another church in my neighborhood, just around the corner from my apartment. There was a delightful grassroots quality to it, with a location that most locals—including myself for the first six months—assumed was a corner café and a congregation filled with young families who had been present since the church‘s founding over a decade ago. There was also a frustrating grassroots quality to it. The church had no pastor but was instead served by rotating sermons from lay congregants. Aside from the occasional proclamation that infant baptism is unbiblical, there persisted a general allergy to doctrine.
I attended an international church. True to its name, the church attracted a congregation of over 15 nationalities. There was vibrant singing—the kind of noise that can only happen when people from all nations get in a room together. But for this and other like congregations to truly live up to their names, they will have to find a way to translate the internationalism of their pews to their worship and their consistories. Too often it felt like we were worshipping in a church in Ohio, just dropped in the middle of Germany.
These episodes are just a fraction of my experiences over the past four years, experiences which sustained me and my faith, for which I am grateful. As this post is dedicated to understanding why I failed to find a church home, my retellings will come off as too critical, skeptical, or maybe even uncharitable. And I think that might be part of the problem. Finding a local church is crucial. Shopping for one isn’t. It is important to find a denomination or congregation that aligns with one’s values and doctrines. It’s more important to understand what the promise and obligation of church is really about.
The promise is more comprehensive than any of us imagined, bigger than any congregation and extending further than we can grasp. Of all the transgressions that the world can commit against the Church—no matter the cultures or nations from which they originate—perhaps the greatest is to look at that vast and broken landscape of saints, and choose not to participate in it. The obligation is to find a corner where two or three are gathered, choose to be there, and let His kingdom come.