During the past five and a half years, Winnipeg has become my home. But if I had to choose a different place to live, a small town called Neuenmarkt would be near the top of my list. If you drive through Neuenmarkt, you would think it’s just like any other town in northern Bavaria. It’s a peaceful place, home to just over 3,000 people. Visit it once and you would probably think it’s nothing special. But what I found there was something rare: a welcoming community in which faith and the church play a central role.
After spending one year at Bodenseehof in southern Germany, some of the youth from Neuenmarkt convinced me and Jess to come volunteer for a year by working in their church, known in Germany as a Freiwilliges Soziales Jahr (FSJ). This was unexpected, but we felt called to go and so we did. We lived with amazing host families and were involved with the church’s youth and children’s ministries.
Germany still has Landerskirchen (state churches). Most Germans are either Lutheran or Catholic, baptized as babies and confirmed in the church around the age of 14. Jess and I come from Canadian Baptist and Mennonite churches, so this was new to us. We began to understand that although most Germans call themselves Christians, very few actually believe or have anything to do with the church. For some, the church is only there for big life events, like weddings and funerals. For others it’s just another social group.
But there was something different in Neuenmarkt. We noticed the difference between it and a neighbouring town right away. Neuenmarkt actually had people in church on a Sunday morning. There were programs almost every night throughout the week. The church ran a kindergartenand had all kinds of congregational events and retreats. Jess and I got to know some of the leaders and families whose faith was strong and alive. We could see how their dedication to Christ was passed down to the young people, who would begin their own personal journeys of faith.
Jess and I loved our work in Neuenmarkt. We were the “cool” Canadians who brought some new ideas and a lot of music. We loved the kids, but our deepest relationships were fostered with the youth. We shared our experiences with them, letting them in on what we had learned about faith and life. We developed life-long friendships which we still value today.
But then we left.
After one year of full-time engagement, it was time for us to return to Canada. It was time for someone new to come to do their FSJ in the church. It was an amazing experience for us, and it was hard to leave, but we knew we couldn't volunteer there forever.
Ever since we left, I always wondered how things were going. Of course I would occasionally hear news about Neuenmarkt or see on Facebook that people were doing well. But what I really wondered was how people were doing with their faith and how the church was progressing.
Here’s the problem. When I’m involved in something, I tend to want to control what I’m involved in. I have noticed this in my school work, organizing sport teams and, of course, my work in the church. Although I don’t like to admit it, if I want something done right, I often believe I’m the only one to do it, and I usually think my way is the best. I see myself as an important part of what I do, and I’m afraid that if I’m not there, things will fall apart. I’m still learning how to give up control and trust others.
So what happened when, last week, I went back to visit the town of Neuenmarkt after not returning to Germany for over five years?
Not only were things going well, but things have grown and changed significantly. The young people who had been confirmed in the church during our time there were now its leaders. Because they liked playing music so much, they decided to start a youth band after we left. They even began holding an additional Sunday evening service once a month. They had one while I was there. I showed up and it was beautiful. The youth that I knew were now grown up and leading worship, playing music. Although life had taken them to different towns and cities, many came for the weekend to be a part of the service.
There is new life and energy in Neuenmarkt. And all of it happened while Jess and I weren’t there. While there was no doubt that we had an influence in that community, it is clear that we were not vital. Things functioned well without us, and although God used us for a time, His work continues through other people in that place.
It was nice to hear from some of the youth that what we had brought, said, and sung impacted their lives. It was encouraging to hear that they still remembered some of what we talked about and how it was a meaningful time for them as well. But, most of all it was nice to hear that their faith was built on Christ, and that their journeys continued and got deeper even without us there.
Sometimes we like to think that we are doing God’s work. But that’s not really true. God is doing the work, and sometimes, when we submit our lives to Him, we get to be a part of it. This is a hard lesson for me, a pastor, to learn and re-learn. I often think that I need to be involved and need to control things in order for people to have the best spiritual experience. But there is no reason why what happened in Neuenmarkt can’t happen in my church or any other church.
It’s easy for us to come to a place in ministry where we think we're the only ones left doing God’s work. Like Elijah, we can become depressed and tired, believing that God’s Kingdom rests on us (1 Kings 18-19). In those moments, reminders of who God is and what He's doing are important. It’s essential for us to realize, like Elijah did, that God’s plan is much larger than what we see, and that it’s not only our responsibility.
I think pastors, or anyone who is involved in the church, needs to constantly remember and remind their congregations that our faith and church work can never be built on a person or program. We can never be the centre. God already is the centre, and our job is to go where He leads. But God’s plan is much bigger than we will ever understand. It was here before we were, and it will continue on long after we’re gone. God works in majestic and mysterious ways, and when we follow His lead, He will bring us along.