Pauline and I have just spent the weekend in Germany, not far from the Austrian border and the city of Salzburg. We were there for the annual church retreat of the Munich International Community Church. Much of our own ministry experience has been in the context of an international church – Westlake Church, on the shore of Lake Leman, in Switzerland.
Here are five reflections that relate to our time in Germany and life in an international church:
- The diversity of the church. There were over 2 dozen nationalities at the retreat: Germans, Americans, Brazilians, Afghans and Indians included. There was diversity in terms of what people do. There were people who design cars, kindergarten teachers, engineers and refugees. Which meant that you could have a conversation with someone who’s working on the design of Audi cars and then be speaking to someone who had to leave his country because of the direct threat of violence against his family.
- Music. The church is blessed with a high standard of musicianship. We met in a building that seemed to have good acoustics and it was good to be able to hear a volume of congregational singing. It was also noteworthy that they manage to combine several sources, with songs from the Getty/Townend songbook as well as Hillsong and including Chris Tomlin.
- Young people. When Pauline and I started out in Switzerland, we were young parents of small children – like a lot of our friends in the church. Funny that now some of the young couples in the church are in the age group of our daughters. Time moves on – it’s 25 years since we went to Switzerland.
- Balance. MICC is an international, English speaking church. As with most international churches there is a significant turnover of people (churches with revolving doors). However there are also people with a concern about being able to relate to the local community. How does an international church balance these things? I think there is a related issue – and this was an issue in our international church ministry – how does an international church make sure that the long termers are properly taken care of pastorally while continuing to maintain its openness and welcome to the newcomers?
- Strategic. My talks were based on several episodes in the book of Acts and it was good to have the opportunity to work through the material in the context of an international church. It was helpful to be able to refer to something that some Swiss-based missionary friends have highlighted recently, namely the significance of the Global Diaspora for the gospel. There are over 230 million people in the Global Diaspora – put them all together and you would have one of the largest countries in the world. The good news is that there are gospel implications. Not only does the fact that people are being moved around the world mean that many of them get the opportunity to hear the gospel, but many of them have become effective instruments in God’s hands for the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church. That’s the business that international churches are involved in.
The weekend brought home to me just how strategic these churches are. There has sometimes been kind of thinking that sees international churches as places where older pastors can go around the time of their retirement. Sadly, the implication of that kind of thinking is that these are places that don’t really require any sense of vision: just keep the spiritual feet of the expats warm. It misses the strategic significance of these churches, and in the current global context, they are perhaps more strategically significant than they were 3 decades ago.
Yesterday morning, I came across something from TJ Addington and I used it in wrapping up my final talk of the retreat.
…we need to think about how the world has changed and who actually resides in the great cities of Europe. Go to any major city on the Continent and you find people from everywhere in the world – including great numbers of those we would call unreached today from places like Iran, Iraq, North Africa, and nearly every country on the globe.
All of the immigrants of Europe have ties back home including family so introducing them to the gospel has a huge ripple impact around the world. By definition, if you want to reach unreached populations, the cities of Europe are central to that mission.
To which I would add – not least the international churches in those European cities.