Feature

“Come Swim with Us!”

Using the arts to attract nonbelievers in Berlin

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What do Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Freischwimmer have in common? All three have made—or are making—a profound impact on the spiritual life of Germany:

Martin Luther stood up against a powerful and corrupt Church institution and translated the Bible into everyday German that could be understood by local parishioners. He risked his life to make the gospel accessible to the people.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who penned The Cost of Discipleship in 1937, wrote, “When Jesus bids a man come and follow him, he bids him come and die.” Although he was eventually executed by Hitler’s regime, Bonhoeffer was not referring to physical death as much as to spiritual surrender.

Freischwimmer, a two-year-old church plant in central Berlin, seeks to make the gospel of Christ relevant to a generation of people whose hearts are callous toward God.

Many Western believers think that Christianity is well established in Europe, and therefore evangelistic efforts should be focused eastward. While spiritual darkness is dominant in many countries of north and central Asia, as well as throughout the Middle East and North Africa, to say that Europe is already evangelized and not in need of the life-changing message of the gospel can only be described as a lie of the Deceiver.

In eastern Germany in particular, post–World War II indoctrination of atheistic dogma has left “an indelible impression on the lives of its citizens,” declares Jerry Kragt, Alliance team leader in Germany. “The communist government had convinced almost an entire nation that God is merely a concept that weak people need in order to make it through life. Even today, 20 years after the government fell, less than 1 percent of East Germans attend church on a typical Sunday.”

In its analysis of the spiritual health of Germany, Operation World states: “The majority of churches have lost their identity, purpose and income. Germany needs a change as radical as Luther’s Reformation nearly 500 years ago.”

In the midst of this spiritual vacuum, where even the institutional Church has been profoundly influenced by liberal interpretations of the Bible and humanistic philosophies, Alliance international workers and national believers have teamed up to make church relevant again. But be forewarned: This “church” may not look like the one your grandmother attended!

A few years ago two German men started to meet weekly to pray for their Berlin neighborhood, a thriving cultural center with several art galleries, theaters, concert halls and restaurants. God had given both men a specific burden to impact the area with the gospel of Christ. Out of their weekly prayer times came a call to plant a church that would actively engage this community of successful, cultured, but agnostic Germans. The church name was carefully chosen for the newly formed group.

Freischwimmer is a German word that literally means “swim free.” In Germany, children receive a “freischwimmer” patch when they pass the first level of a swimming test. Since the goal of the church is to provide a place for the target group—modern, successful “free thinkers”—to “swim freely” as they explore the truths of the gospel, the name was a perfect fit. Clearly, a traditional church would not work in this creative milieu, where the younger generation is turned off by a religion that seems to have no relevance to daily living.

One of the men (who had been involved in the leadership of the Alliance-backed Berlin International Church) determined that the best way to create meaningful dialogue was to meet the people where they were at. “This is a part of the city where trends are started, where new ideas are born. There are architects, artists, musicians and people who work the media,” he says. “We talk about art . . . getting to know each other is the main point.”

To engage the interest and capture the attention of the community, the Freischwimmer team rented a small art gallery where local artists could display their works for free. Throughout the year, six smaller exhibits feature work by local artists, each featured for six to eight weeks. On average, 100–150 people attended each exhibit. The first exhibit was held in the historic Zionskirche Cathedral, where Bonhoeffer once pastored. Some 500 people attended that creative event.

This unique gallery approach has proved to be an effective way to reach out to local artists and their circles. Many of the contacts made at the exhibits have attended Sunday brunches hosted by C&MA workers Ben and Sarah Carey. “The brunches held in our apartment have provided a neutral location where we can openly discuss the things of God and how His truth can be relevant to our daily lives,” Ben says.

A third-party observer of this developing church plant enthusiastically commented, “The Freischwimmer ministry builds bridges between Christians in Berlin and the unchurched population. . . . This endeavor ensures that Christians are proactive in taking the gospel into the marketplace, sharing God’s love with all those who have not heard of Christ and helping them learn about Him in a format they can relate to and understand.”

Kragt has learned that East German people are distrusting of new ideas because they have seen old systems and ideologies crumble. Christianity may sound appealing to them, but they don’t believe it can really deliver.

Kragt tells of Anna, a young German woman who grew up in East Berlin with no knowledge of God. Like most of her family, she claimed to be an atheist. Her husband, however, who had had a little church background as a child, encouraged her to attend the church group.

After attending for a while, she entered into serious private conversations with Kragt’s wife, Shelly. In tears, Anna said to Shelly, “I really want to believe. I’m standing on the edge of a cliff. God wants me to jump off, and I know He will catch me. I just can’t do it right now. Please pray that I’ll have the faith to do it.”

Several months later, Shelly had the privilege of praying with Anna and continues to meet with her regularly for prayer and discipleship. God had lifted the last blinders from Anna’s eyes so that she could see Christ and accept what He did for her. Anna’s life has changed from hopelessness to one with purpose and joy.

Some who come to Freischwimmer are not atheists like Anna but have been seeking God outside of the Church. A successful middle-aged woman, Johanna came into contact with Freischwimmer after years of searching for spiritual truth in a variety of Hindubased religions as well as in scientology. By her own admission, her experiences left her more disoriented and thirsty than ever.

When Johanna first attended a group session, she brought lots of baggage and tons of questions. But over time the Lord opened her eyes to see Him as the absolute Source of truth. The love of Christ that she observed and later experienced for herself was like a cup of fresh water in the desert. Johanna eventually received Christ as her Savior and continues to grow in her faith.

While Christianity and traditional religion have become meaningless to many German people, Kragt notes that the New Age worldview is on the increase. “There seems to be a yoga shop on every street corner!” But rather than expressing discouragement, Kragt says, “To us, this is evidence that people are openly seeking truth and spirituality. We don’t shut these people out but welcome them to come and ‘swim’ with us and give them an opportunity to discover Jesus.”

The vision of Freischwimmer’s leadership team is to send out groups of believing Germans to start churches in other parts of Berlin as well as in the unreached cities of eastern Germany. By God’s grace and through faithful prayer and financial support, this dream will become a reality.

And it is very likely that Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have heartily cheered on the Freischwimmer team.

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