English is the first thing you notice at Hillsong Berlin. The church was meeting at the Kino in der Kulturbrauerei—a movie theater in a historic brewery, just one tram stop from the last standing section of the Berlin Wall—but on Sunday night the sign out front said, “Welcome Home.” A smiling cadre of young, fashionable, and diverse volunteers from around the world greeted people in accented English.

Inside, the entire service is in English, including the sermon and all the worship songs. Participants sing “Wake,” “What a Beautiful Name,” and “King of Kings.” Most international Hillsong churches translate their services from the local language into English. In Berlin, there is no translation. The service is just in English. That isn’t Hannah Fischer’s first language, but that’s part of why she comes to Hillsong Berlin.

“People from outside Germany can’t really understand how awkward it is to be Christian here,” she said. “I could never praise God like that in my language.”

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther insisted that Christians needed to hear the gospel in their own language, in words they could understand. When the Reformation swept Germany, people abandoned Latin worship for German prayers and praise.

Today, however, German Christians like Fischer are turning from their own language to a more global tongue: English. They say the foreign language allows them to loosen their German identity, praise God in an uninhibited way, and connect with a global, cosmopolitan Christianity.

Deborah Justice, an ethnomusicologist at Syracuse University, researched transnational evangelical groups in Germany, including Hillsong, Vineyard, and the campus ministry Cru. She found many are “choosing to worship in English as a globalized non-native language.”

These Christians, Justice wrote in an article last year, are adopting English as their special worship language, and that changes “how people are relating to their fellow congregants and to God.” When German evangelicals sing in English, “they understand themselves as singing in community with the millions of other Christians around the world.”

And sometimes those other Christians are not so far away. At the Leipzig English Church, a lot of worshipers are binational couples, and English is their common language, according to chaplain Martin Reakes-Williams. “People like the style, the international flair,” he said.

At Rhema Café, an Assemblies of God mission in Landstuhl, in the southwest, services are in English because the church is trying to reach US and NATO soldiers stationed in the area. “Service members from 28 NATO nations all speak English and their native tongue,” said pastor Timothy Carentz Sr. “Only the Germans really speak German, but they also speak English.”

At the Freie Evangelische Gemeinde (FeG, or “Free Evangelical Community”) in Bamberg, in central Germany, the congregation has a few expats and international students but is mostly made up of Germans. Worship leader Ben Häst still picks English-language worship songs like “Whom Shall I Fear (God of Angel Armies)” by Chris Tomlin or “In Christ Alone” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend.

There are German versions of the songs. Worship books like the Feiert Jesus! feature German translations of Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, and Hillsong, as well as works by German Christian songwriters, including Outbreakband, Lothar Kosse, and Arne Kopfermann.

“Some songs like ‘Indescribable’ and ‘10,000 Reasons’ work really well in German,” Häst said. For a lot of worship songs, though, “they are just better in English.” Besides, they are simple enough to understand with subtitles, and the words are “poetic and powerful.”

Article continues below

The lyrics might be simple, but there are occasional breakdowns in communication. “Just because Germans enjoy English-language music does not mean that they always understand it,” Justice said.

There can be awkward moments. The German translation may not match the English, or Germans may mispronounce tricky words like wounds or tears. Native English speakers may smile at such mistakes, but Justice said there could be larger theological consequences.

“If you’re trying to read, pronounce everything, sing along, and translate all at the same time, your brain is so busy,” Justice said. This may be okay when it comes to simpler, more repetitive songs, but if it’s concepts “like being saved through grace, not works,” she said, “people might miss the meaning.”

Worship leaders also receive pushback from time to time. Older members of FeG have asked Häst to “keep this English out of the German church.” They get upset because “they just don’t understand what’s going on,” he said, “and I can respect that.”

But he wants to encourage them to try singing in English. “It is a great enrichment,” Häst said. “Looking beyond our borders can be a great source of healing.”

Other German churches put a lot of emphasis on cultivating that international vision. At the charismatic Tübinger Offensive Stadtmission (TOS) in the southwestern town of Tübingen, church leaders felt led to embrace English and become a global and multicultural ministry. Markus Kalb, a worship leader at the church, said TOS changed about 15 years ago as leaders fasted and prayed about the community’s “dark, Nazi, antisemitic past” and its present prejudices. English worship, they felt, would help them take a different position toward people perceived as “foreign.”

Then in 2015, Germany saw a dramatic influx of refugees as nearly half a million people, mostly from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, applied for asylum in the country. The politics of accepting refugees grew heated, even in small university towns like Tübingen. At TOS, leaders felt God had prepared them for this. Their English-language worship gave them “a way to interact with and welcome people of other nations,” Kalb said.

It’s not always so spiritual, though. Sometimes English just creeps into German speech, in a hodgepodge that Germans jokingly call “Denglish.”

“Our pastors use ‘Denglish’ all the time,” Kalb said. “Words like ‘powerful’ or even ‘worship’ are part of our language.” In a traditional invitation to worship, a minister might say Lasst uns ihn loben (“Let us worship him”), but at TOS a minister might say Lasst uns worship machen (literally: “Let us make worship”).

For the most part, though, the use of English is very intentional. “We know that to reach people in Germany—refugees, immigrants, students, newcomers, and youth—you have to translate it into the local, modern language,” Kalb said.

As Kalb sees it, this isn’t a break from the German tradition of Christian worship going back to the great hymns of the Reformation. It’s a continuation. Luther wrote that the gospel needed to be communicated “as though it were written yesterday,” and the evangelical churches are trying to do that too. Now, that means singing songs in English.

And if he were alive, Kalb said, “Martin Luther would do the same.”

Ken Chitwood is a writer and scholar of global religion living in Germany.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Issue: