New era of cooperation anticipated following historic meetings in Germany
An estimated 1,000 pastors from a variety of churches gathered May 21-24 in Lemgo, Germany, for a first-of-its-kind conference that encouraged pastors from different evangelical traditions to stand firm on the Scripture and preach the Gospel with urgency to their lost communities. On the heels of that conference, representatives of the German Baptist Union then met with a Southern Baptist delegation to discuss working together to advance Christian witness and ministry on a continent where so many need to hear the Gospel.
The pastors gathered under the banner of "Preach the Word!" for a program that featured both Southern Baptist and conservative German evangelical speakers focus on the preacher's ministry: his call, his message, his audience and his passion, said Heinrich Derksen, president of Bibelseminar Bonn. Southern Baptists Craig Blasing, Morris H. Chapman, Richard Land, Paige Patterson, Phil Roberts and Bobby Welch were joined on the platform by Russian-German pastor Heinrich Klassen, magazine editor Helmut Matthies, evangelist Wilhelm Pahls and seminary professor Cleon Rogers.
The pastors conference played a key role in developing relationships between like-minded evangelicals who have not worked together much before, said Gerhard Schmidt, dean of the seminary and the conference organizer. The goal was to help them rediscover the inerrancy and authority of the Bible as the basis of a partnership that overcomes reservations different congregations and churches often have about each other.
"This conference was a milestone in bringing together biblical and progressive churches in Germany. The conference will surely bring people to think anew about the commitment to the Holy Scriptures, evangelism and church growth," Schmidt said. "Among the Russian-German churches, this conference will advance collaboration between the churches and motivate growth through evangelism and healthy church planting."
The idea for the pastors' conference grew out of a 2007 visit several of the German leaders made to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, which has had a partnership with Bibelseminar Bonn since 2005. That 2007 trip included time in Nashville, Tenn. at the SBC Executive Committee to talk about how Southern Baptists cooperate among themselves and with other evangelicals.
"I wanted our pastors to get to know the SBC and their strong and conservative theology and their influence in society so our small, weak and not-so-organized churches will be encouraged to cooperate in Germany," Derksen said. "Never before were so many Russian-German pastors and preachers from different groups and churches in one conference together. We realized how much we have in common and that we need each other to reach our goals to evangelize Germany, Europe and the world."
The Russian-German believers are descendants of German Christians who lived in Russia during the Communist era and endured serious persecution for their faith -- a persecution that deepened their commitment to biblical convictions. When they were able to leave the collapsing Soviet Union and return to their homeland, they found many large church buildings virtually empty because liberal theology had undermined faith in the truthfulness of God's Word.
Over the past 20 years, Russian-German Baptists have started 550 churches that draw more than 130,000 people to weekend worship services. In many cases, worship attendance far outstrips the number of members on a church roll.
"It is apparent that our Lord is visiting Germany in a very powerful way," said Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Seminary. "Seeing more than 1,000 pastors and leaders from the Russian-German and German Baptist churches gathered in one assembly had to be one of the greatest blessings of my life. Southwestern Seminary counts it an honor to work in partnership with Bibelseminar Bonn."
Morris H. Chapman, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee called the pastors' conference "an exhilarating and unforgettable experience."
"Dr. Derksen believes Russian-German Baptists can be the catalyst for revival throughout Europe," Chapman said. "Realizing that all of the churches are not totally in agreement with each other, he is appealing to all 550 Russian-German churches to work together cooperatively for the sake of missions and evangelism. For the sake of the Gospel, he has a keen interest in emulating the cooperative spirit of the Southern Baptist Convention."
"I am excited about how God seems to be calling the Russian-German Baptists to reach Germany and all of Europe for Christ," he said.
While many leaders of the German Baptist Union have been critical of the Southern Baptist Convention, GBU President Emanuel Brandt "was most cordial and expressed an interest in continued dialogue with the SBC," Chapman added.
Brandt's meeting with SBC and Russian-German Baptist leaders was his personal initiative to share his concerns about the state of evangelism among churches within the German Baptist Union, and to talk about ways the German Baptist Union might cooperate with both groups.
The meeting with the German Baptist Union representatives marked an important step forward in Southern Baptist efforts to forge cooperative relationships with like-minded evangelicals around the world, Chapman noted.
The initiative for developing those relationships was launched in 2005, a year after the Southern Baptists voted to withdraw from the Baptist World Alliance over liberal theology and left-leaning relationships in that organization. In 2007, Bobby Welch, a former SBC president and retired pastor of First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., was named to lead the convention's new "Global Evangelical Relations" strategy.
Welch was pleased the Southern Baptist delegation had an opportunity to discuss cooperative relationships with German Baptist Union leadership.
"We had a good meeting with them while we were in the country," Welch said. "It offers an excellent and clear model of what the Southern Baptist Convention can be doing to strengthen relationships globally, now and in the future. It offers new possibilities to encourage reaching a lost world with the Gospel."
Brandt said the meeting was "an encouraging and hopeful experience."
"From the first moment on, I felt a warm and cordial atmosphere between the SBC leaders and our German group," Brandt said. "I appreciated the open and purposive discussion we had.
"I am convinced that our future cooperation should be based on blessed experiences that our unions once had," he added. "We should always keep in mind that there are so many similarities in our unions and the way we respond to the need for hope and salvation in the world. I think a close partnership between the relevant groups and people in the union -- and on the level of the congregations -- is very possible."
While German Baptists face a serious challenge in declining baptisms, Brandt said he found hope in the fact that many believers are beginning to live distinctively Christian lifestyles amidst the decay of European culture.
"A big challenge is the enormous decline in the numbers of baptisms in Germany. We have to strengthen our position as Baptists and our practice of baptism," Brandt said. "We have to define characteristics that are mandatory for all of us. The uniqueness of the person Jesus Christ and the message of the cross should be clearly emphasized. The authentic testimony of the disciples and their mutual consent are and remain a compelling necessity.
"Besides the decline in baptisms [however], our statistics reveal a rising number of Christians, who live an unaccommodating lifestyle," he added. "A new obligation and constancy would be a good contrast to the actual development in our societies."
The German union's collaboration with the Baptist World Alliance does not eliminate the option of cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention, Brandt added.
"Primarily I want to focus on a stable cooperation between the SBC and the German union. We have to stand together in the spirit of the Lord and our common testimony," he said. "Other European groups could be involved after we have built a solid American-German partnership. We can intensify the contact to the European Baptist Federation as soon as new faith has grown and the cooperation has started to work for the two of us."
Southern Baptists can play an important role in bringing revival to Germany and Europe as they partner with likeminded evangelicals there, Derksen said.
"We are praying for revival in Germany and Europe. We need revival in our personal life, in our families and our churches," he explained. "We would be glad if Southern Baptists would join us and help us reach our nation for God."
Mark Kelly is an assistant editor with Baptist Press.