The apartment buildings were built for workers in the waning days of the East German Republic—formidable buildings assembled from prefabricated concrete slabs. But today, the Plattenbauen, as they are often called, are home to migrant families from Ukraine and Eritrea, Afghanistan and Romania, Nigeria and Syria.
“Each apartment block has its own community, its own dynamics, its own culture,” said Ute Paul, a German Christian, as she walked through the Gotha, Germany, suburb.
As she reached Coburger Place, a central square with shops and a small casino that serves as the neighborhood’s main hangout spot, Paul pointed out another sign of change and new life.
There was a small storefront with words written across the window: “From dark to light.”
The shop is the principal gathering place for the Mustard Seed District Mission. There, for the past seven years, Michael Weinmann and his wife, Christiane, have been “experimenting with new forms of community in Gotha-West,” Paul said. She and her husband, Frank, joined the Weinmanns last year.
Since the Mustard Seed team started trying to minister to new arrivals in Gotha, they’ve had to relinquish a lot of what is assumed about mission and adapt to the everyday realities of those God has given them to serve. Now, they focus less on events and more on “relationships, ‘accidental’ encounters, and natural life in the district,” she said.
The result, Paul said, has been the creation of “a vibrant network of relationships between people of different backgrounds and origins from across the world.”
Mustard Seed is just one example of how the movement of asylum seekers, economic migrants, and internally displaced people is changing evangelical ministries in Europe. Christian organizations have had to reshape their institutions and rethink their understanding of ministry.
Migration to Europe is not new. But since 2013, some 17.2 million migrants from outside the European Union have come to Europe. They have arrived in ones and twos and whole families, often traumatized and stripped of their worldly possessions, to try to make new homes for themselves in Germany and Spain, the United Kingdom and Italy.
As they arrived, they sparked debates around European culture, values, and religious identity.
Many churches have played key roles in integration. Christians have welcomed immigrants, supplied them with winter coats and basic necessities, helped them learn a new language, and navigated them through the bureaucracies necessary to start their new life.
It was more than just hospitality, according to a 2018 study by the Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe (CCME). In addition to helping with crucial social services, the Christians’ welcome provided “symbolic resources for positive self-identification and opportunities for interaction.”
But that process also led to a transformation of European churches.
The CCME surveyed 74 Protestant congregations, ranging from state-privileged or “mainline” churches to evangelical and Pentecostal churches, that ministered to migrants in 22 countries. It found that migrants had started attending half of those churches by 2020. In about a quarter, the migrants are now a notable minority of the church. In another 20 percent, the recent migrants had become the majority.
This has meant a shift in not only what European churches look like, but how church is done, said Israel Oluwole Olofinjana, a Baptist minister from Nigeria now serving in Essex in the southeast of England.
As churches have witnessed the influx of migrants into their pews and local populations, Olofinjana said they “have had to rethink who is planning, who is speaking, who is leading.”
It’s not optional, he said.
“You cannot be talking about dynamic gospel work in Europe and not think of migrant and diaspora Christ-ians as a key element of what you think and do,” he said. “They are becoming central to European theology, wrestling with issues around Christian social ethics, migration issues, and the mission of the church at large.”
As the migrants do that, they are bringing a fresh perspective to what it means to be Christian in Europe.
“We’ve been described as ‘missionaries from below,’ because we come from contexts of suffering and trauma, crippling economic struggles and persecution,” Olofinjana said. “We have all these challenges and chaotic stories, but amid it all, God’s Spirit is moving. We are here for such a time as this—to help Europe to see what God’s kingdom can look like in the 21st century.”
Part of that means planting new churches and building new institutions to meet changing needs.
For example, in Rome, the Chinese Christian Church in Italy (CCCI) decided to refurbish an old hotel near Tor Vergata University to start a new seminary. Inaugurated in April, the Italian Chinese Theological Seminary (ICTS) is a joint project of 57 CCCI churches, Ma Baptist in Hong Kong, and 22 churches across Italy and Europe.
John Kwok, a Chinese pastor in Canada and principal of the ICTS, said there has been an explosion of Chinese churches across Europe in recent years. That created the need for a seminary.
“For a long time, hundreds of church leaders did not receive formal or complete theological training or had to travel to Hong Kong to get it,” Kwok said, “but now, because the world is changing, more people require the professional service of pastors. They know the previous model is a limitation to reaching more people.”
The ICTS will be able to serve Chinese churches in Italy and beyond by providing pastors with theological education and a network to “train missionaries, improve pastoral care, promote evangelical work, and complete the Great Commission,” Kwok said.
For now, the training will be focused on Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking pastors and congregations. In the future, the plan is for the seminary in Rome to become a hub of multicultural mission work on the continent.
Back in Germany, missiologist Detlef Blöcher, chair of the Working Group for Migration and Integration of the Evangelical Alliance in Germany, said new initiatives like this are a “blood infusion to the church in Europe.”
Blöcher points to missions such as Mustard Seed in Gotha-West, where people like Ute Paul and her fellow missionaries are cooperating with migrants to create new forms of church and Christian community.
“We need their contribution to be a witness to our post-Christian society,” Blöcher said.
Amid the towering apartment blocks—as migrants face discrimination, unfair work conditions, and the everyday difficulties of learning a new language and navigating a new context—Paul said they are asking questions about the way of Jesus. The key for her and other Germans, she said, is to listen and learn, dialogue and discern what God is doing among them.
“It’s a simple, daily process of being close to people and being sensitive to their strengths and the possibilities God is presenting them,” she said.
For Paul, that means leaving behind paternalistic models, mindsets, and methods of mission and discovering an alternative style of walking alongside people, giving priority to newcomers’ experiences and strengths.
“The reality is, I am the guest here in Gotha-West,” she said. “This is their home, not mine.”
Ken Chitwood is a writer and scholar of global religion living in Germany.
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