The first thing you notice about Thomas Schirrmacher’s home are the books.

Stuffed into shelves, stacked in piles, and even teetering on top of the toilet, they range from edited collections of Jewish history to works such as Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

Schirrmacher is the recently elected secretary general and CEO of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA). He is also the author of scores of books himself.

Of note on Schirrmacher’s bookcases, however, is a title not written by him but in his honor: God Needs No Defense: Reimagining Muslim-Christian Relations in the 21st Century.

Opening with an essay on “humanitarian Islam” by former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid, the edited collection of essays, statements, and treatises—including an essay by Schirrmacher’s wife, Christine, who is a professor of Islamic studies—covers issues related to Christian-Muslim relations and religious freedom.

The volume is a testament to Schirrmacher’s vision: a world where, as the editors said, “Muslim and Christian believers reach across racial, religious, cultural, and political lines to strive for the equal rights and dignity of every human being.”

The authors said Schirrmacher is a man who is driven intellectually, emotionally, and theologically to work with a diverse range of partners in addressing some of the world’s most pressing issues.

The challenge now is to rally global evangelicals to do it with him.

“Sometimes we [at the WEA] are criticized for our friendly interactions with Roman Catholics or Muslims or others, that we are interacting with the Antichrist or entering into spiritual union with them,” he said. “Sometimes certain evangelicals have refused to participate because we have coffee with Pope Francis or meet with Orthodox Christians, Hindus, Muslims, or Sikhs.”

Schirrmacher in conversation with patriarchs from Ethiopia
Image: WEA / Martin Warnecke / Courtesy of Thomas Schirrmacher

Schirrmacher in conversation with patriarchs from Ethiopia

The 61-year-old German head of the WEA is convinced, though, that evangelicals from around the world would support these many, many conversations, if they only understood.

“If they understood these meetings give me the opportunity to speak about evangelism from an evangelical perspective,” he said, “then of course they would want me to go.”

Formed in 1951, the WEA is the largest international organization of evangelical churches, representing evangelical alliances in 140 countries and more than 600 million individual Protestants worldwide.

Its roots stretch back to an 1846 meeting between Christians troubled by social injustices such as slavery and concerned about confessional challenges related to the advancement of Darwinian evolution and communism. The group’s aim, according to the original documents, was to start “a new thing in church history, a definite organization for the expression of unity amongst Christian individuals belonging to different churches.”

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Today, more than 150 years later, the WEA aims to provide an identity, voice, and platform for millions of evangelical Christians on issues such as human trafficking, peace and reconciliation efforts, and missions.

“The core of what we do at the WEA is speak more strongly for evangelicals on the world stage,” Schirrmacher said.

He is not new to the work. Before he was elected secretary general in 2020, Schirrmacher chaired the WEA’s Theological Commission and served as associate secretary general for Theological Concerns and Religious Freedom. This brought him into close contact with organizations such as the World Council of Churches, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, and multilateral institutions such as Religions for Peace. He has worked with leaders from diverse religious traditions on critical international issues, including climate change, gender equality, and religious freedom.

Schirrmacher might seem like an odd choice to lead the WEA. He comes from a country where less than 2 percent of the population is evangelical, and his appointment comes at a time when Germany and Europe more generally have a waning influence on global Christianity. Today, three-quarters of the world’s evangelicals live in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia.

Besides that, Schirrmacher’s interreligious work could be seen as being at odds with the force and flow of evangelical sentiment. Evangelicals are not known for cooperating and making common cause with non-Christians, secular groups, or ecumenically minded mainline Christians.

Nonetheless, former WEA secretary general Geoff Tunnicliffe, who has worked closely with Schirrmacher over the years, believes Schirrmacher is the person to unite evangelicals around important causes and spur them to work with new partners. He believes Schirrmacher can get things done.

“There are many complex human and global challenges—evangelism, social justice, global pandemics, poverty, refugees. Building unity and a collective voice for evangelicals is critical at this time in history,” he said.

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Tunnicliffe said when Schirrmacher was elected as the WEA’s next leader, it was with these emphases in mind.

“I know of no other leader who has done more for promoting Christian mission, interreligious dialogue, human rights, and religious freedom within a solid biblical foundation,” he said.

Descended from Huguenots—Calvinists who faced severe persecution during the Reformation—Schirrmacher was raised in a family with equal commitments to furthering the global Christian witness and defending religious minorities.

His parents, Ingeborg and Bernd (the latter a pioneering telecommunications professor in post–World War II Germany), regularly hosted missionaries at their home in Giessen, a German university town known for its mathematical museum. They encouraged their son to get to know their guests, including a certain evangelist named Billy Graham.

Inspired by the missionaries he met, Schirrmacher went on to study theology, cultural anthropology, and comparative religion in Switzerland, the Netherlands, California, and Germany. He then served as a pastor in various churches in Bonn—the former capital of West Germany—before founding Martin Bucer Seminary at the age of 36 and serving as rector for 22 years.

In those years, Schirrmacher traveled and taught extensively, learning the contours of global evangelicalism from Lakeland, Florida, to Bangalore, India, and many places in between.

As a testament to the breadth of his international contacts and connections, there is a page on his website called “Favorite Places” that includes his amateur photos of places as diverse as “the eternal construction site of Singapore,” the source of the Nile River in Jinja, Uganda, and the Bellagio fountain in Las Vegas.

Across borders and boundaries, he’s dined and dialogued with presidents and popes, looking for ways evangelicals could partner with world leaders and global religious institutions to address global problems.

At the same time, he’s also sat with everyday Christians from Turkey to Gambia, Indonesia to Brazil, listening to them and learning from their diverse perspectives on faith and life.

Schirrmacher said this has given him both a keenly developed appreciation for the needs of Christians in the Global South and the imperative to use his positions of authority to advocate on their behalf—particularly, he said, when it comes to fighting against the persecution of Christians.

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For Schirrmacher, this is a priority, and he wants to see evangelicals “wield their theology to actively contribute to the prevention of violence against other religious minorities.”

His connection to the concerns of global Christians may be one reason he is not viewed as an elite European, detached from the real issues, but instead as a missions-oriented, globally aware Christian who cares deeply for the concerns of the worldwide church.

It is also perhaps because his theological views are consistently conservative.

“I really have not changed my theology since I was six years old,” he said. “Trusting the Bible and in my personal savior Jesus Christ, letting his resurrection and forgiveness guide my view of the world.”

And though some of the issues he cares about can be characterized as “liberal,” he’s also clear that he is “pro-family and against abortion.”

In this, Schirrmacher feels he is following in the footsteps of another Bonn-based theologian and pastor: Theodor Christlieb. Schirrmacher wrote a dissertation on Christlieb in 1985, exploring how the chair of pastoral theology in Bonn in the late 1800s developed a theology of world mission and upheld conservative doctrines against the liberal German theology that was in vogue at the time.

Christlieb founded the German Evangelization Association in 1884 and is seen as the “father of German evangelism” and one of the pioneers of the field of modern missiology.

Encouraged by Christlieb’s example, Schirrmacher does not feel the need to “rewrite systematic theology,” he said, “but to give biblical reasons for mission and go out and do it together.”

The only significant theological shift Schirrmacher has undergone as an adult was along these lines, he said. At age 35, he witnessed the fallout from a missions conference where presenters spent more time critiquing other evangelicals than on missions.

Schirrmacher left frustrated. But also inspired. “It was then that I shifted from fighting fellow evangelicals over theology to seeking unity for mission’s sake,” he said.

His interest in evangelical unity for the sake of global missions not only led him to advocate for greater evangelical ecumenism but brought him into closer relationship with other religious actors as well.

Historically, evangelicals around the world have had “a checkered history of relations with other religions,” writes Pentecostal professor Tony Richie. Sometimes they have been willfully ignorant. Sometimes, outright hostile.

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But now, a new movement of evangelicals appears to be cautiously embracing interreligious dialogue and its benefits.

Simone Twibell, director of Intercultural Studies and Ministerial Missions at Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois, writes that evangelicals have increasingly come to see interreligious encounter as another way to “glorify God.”

Evangelicals are coming to the interreligious table trying to find ways to navigate the multiple streams of religious diversity and difference they are confronted with in their day-to-day lives, she said.

But many have also recognized the power of presenting a unified voice with fellow religious actors on things like religious freedom.

The opportunities for alliances can create some tension, Schirrmacher said. Working with other groups on issues such as religious freedom can mean putting aside for a moment some things important to evangelicals.

“Evangelicals are unbelievably dogmatic and conservative, even extremely conservative, on issues like abortion and homosexuality,” he said. “At the same time, on questions of world trade, poverty reduction, and multicultural togetherness, they tick more to the left.”

For Schirrmacher, if there is a choice between which of these to emphasize, it’s clear: He believes it’s time to find ways to cooperate with a broad array of allies and embrace a more global vision to tackle conflict, poverty, pandemics, racism, and climate change.

As he sees it, he’s just continuing the tradition of the WEA.

“What we do today is in line with what we did in 1846,” Schirrmacher said, “when evangelicals came together to fight slavery.”

More than anything else, the man descended from persecuted Huguenots and informed by his experiences with evangelical minorities around the world believes freedom of religion—including the freedom to proselytize—is an inalienable human right.

This conviction has led him to work on a plethora of projects with Catholics, Muslims, and other partners.

As Schirrmacher sees it, the end goal of the WEA is not necessarily to promote world peace, but to pave the way for Christian witness in a world
of difference.

From his years working toward that goal, Schirrmacher is particularly proud of helping compose Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct.

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Jointly published by the World Council of Churches, the WEA, and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue—which together represent 90 percent of global Christianity—the document aimed to provide a road map for how churches, ecumenical organizations, and missions agencies could do their work while remaining humbly aware of the differences in religious convictions and the tensions those differences can foster.

Whether it’s working with Indonesian Muslim leaders to help protect the rights of Christian converts or convincing his fellow evangelicals that he should be sitting at the table with an Orthodox patriarch or a significant Sunni cleric, Schirrmacher said the key is dialogue.

“Talking, talking, talking,” he said. “Unity doesn’t come out of nowhere. It comes from dialogue, two people talking to each other.”

Evangelicals, he said, like to talk. But too often that talking has been aimed at division, rather than unity—distinction, instead of common ground.

“From the grassroots to theological schools, seminaries to institutions and local churches, we should all be talking to each other and with people of other faith traditions,” he said. “Whatever we do, we need to do it together.”

As the new head of the WEA, he wants to bring global evangelicalism into a thousand conversations.

“Above all,” he said, “that’s what I believe I am called to do.”

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

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