In Germany: The Mission Field has reached our own Door
More than 20 non-German-speaking congregations and smaller groups can be found today in The United Methodist Church in Germany. They already have transformed the life of the church there, and the flow of refugees from the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere will only add to that transformation, says George Miller. Miller is the coordinator for the work in these congregations and a Global Ministries missionary. Volker Kiemle spoke with him about the challenges. The interview was published in December 2015 in unterwegs, a magazine of The United Methodist Church in Germany.
How is it going with the international congregations?
George Miller: These congregations are one of the growing parts of The United Methodist Church in Germany. One can say that with greater cultural variety comes greater congregational vitality. The church already is known among many new migrants and refugees coming to Europe because the UMC is engaged in so many parts of the world. When they then come to Germany, many seek out Methodist connections and churches. Our "cross and flame" is a well-recognized symbol worldwide.
What are the challenges facing the international congregations?
George Miller: The same as those that German-speaking congregations face. There is the urgent question: How can we be more open to the people who come to us? How can our culture become a more welcoming one? For a long time, we had not thought of mission as other than our being sent out to Africa or other overseas locations. In time, we have learned that the mission field is also right here, at our church door. From what we earlier considered "mission countries” missionaries now come to us! They bring a lively Christianity and strong belief. They transform our congregations and also our church. The question is: How do we face this process of transformation and change?
What are the differences between international and German-speaking congregations?
George Miller: First, naturally, are the traditional German worship services, which are generally more formal — many people from Africa, for instance, find them unexpectedly cold and impersonal. That brings naturally heavy discussions and disagreement, and the challenge is to bring these different worship styles together in one congregation.
When one group is large enough — like some of our Ghanaian congregations — then it may be meaningful to separate the worship services, yet remain one church in Christ. We are most certainly called to oneness! In the day-to-day reality, it is indeed often the case that a worship service is celebrated according to German tradition, even though most of the congregants come from a migrant background.
It can be better, certainly, to celebrate separate worship services than to fight over the “right” form of worship.
George Miller: We are called by Christ to unity. And in many churches where migrants are members — in Italy for example — there is a single worship service. One seeks to find in it the possibility of meaningful theological experience and direction. That can be a bit chaotic, but it also speaks more directly to our covenant than when we allow our differences to separate us.
Should, therefore, the traditional German and migrant churches work together more?
Yes, and it is also a big challenge to integrate migrant churches into already existing UMC congregations. Wherever that integration succeeds, congregational life will be greatly enriched. Migrant churches often bring a refreshing faith and, hence, help the traditional congregations. Existing congregations can help the migrants to organize themselves better according to the rules of the German conferences and to become a more integrated part of them. I wish this cooperation would be closer.
How does the flow of refugees right now impact the international congregations?
Migrants who have been here for some time generally know their way around. They know which agencies, offices, or centers offer services, and can help newcomers navigate them and deal with living in a new society. They know how to register the children in the school system, and so on. So, they can help the refugees find their way. However, some migrants prefer to stay among themselves as this gives them greater cultural security. But this can hinder our task to minister with the refugees.
How can the UMC in Germany better support your work?
There is already a lot being done — organizationally, financially, through the engagement of church leadership. However, we need to shift to an awareness that our mission field is everywhere—it is worldwide, but also at our own door. Because of the suffering in the world there are people coming to us, many of whom do not know the liberating news of the gospel. We have a lot to do here.