International congregations
Puzzle Internationale Gemeinden

What do we mean with an “international congregation?“

Previous definitions

A possible definition comes from Bianca Dümling, Professor for Interdisciplinary Foundations of Social Work:

This “defines congregations established by a pastor with an immigrant background; their language is not German and 75 % of their members have an immigrant background. “

Bianca Dümling: Neue Gemeinden hat die Stadt – Migranten, Migrationskirchen und interkulturelle Gemeinden (The city has new congregations – Immigrants, Migrant Churches and Intercultural Congregations). In Harald Sommerfeld: Mit Gott in der Stadt. Die Schönheit der urbanen Transformation (With God in the city. The beauty of urban transformation), Marburg 2016, pages 407 - 424, page 412. Many contributions on this page are from Bianca Dümling.

Scientific research mostly uses the expression “migrant congregations“ or “migrant churches“. They are also referred to as “congregations of different languages und origins“ (EKD and many regional Protestant Churches since 1997), “Congregations of various languages and origins“ (Evangelical Church in Bavaria since 2017), “mother-tongued congregations or missions (Roman Catholic Church) or “intercultural congregations“.

A new definition

The “conference of delegates for congregations of other languages und origins in the regional Churches and Institutions in the EKD” (KAGaSH) has suggested referring to these congregations as “international congregations“.

The expression “international congregations“ is a self-assured and positive expression that many of these congregations use for themselves. “Migrants”, however, are often attributed with problems and supposed deficits. It is contrary to a loving spirit to call people with a migrational background “strangers“ or “foreigners“. As Christians we know that we are guests in this world (Phil. 3:20; Hebr. 13:14), that the Holy Spirit blesses everybody with gifts (1Cor:12) and that Christ's Church overcomes every barrier (Gal. 3:28).

International congregations are “international“ because their members feel at home in Germany and at the same time they are connected with other world regions. So they become a binding power between different nationalities and bridge-makers in universal Christianity.

The counterparts of international congregations wishing to become more deeply integrated in German society are the local congregations who wish to become more open interculturally. So international congregations that become integrated meet local congregations that have open themselves to internationality. Both can strengthen each other and learn from one another. The number of congregations who are both local and international is increasing. Only in fellowship with each other can they carry God's mission into the world.

Where they come from

In Germany, there are about 2,000 – 3,000 Protestant international congregations, 460 Roman Catholic mother-tongued congregations and about 450 Orthodox or Oriental-Orthodox congregations which have been established by immigrants.

The number of Protestant congregations can only be roughly estimated. Every week, new congregations are founded, divide themselves or assume another name, or some just dissolve.

Most of the Protestant congregations were established by pastors from Africa (especially from Ghana and other West and Central African countries) and Asia (especially from Korea, but also from China, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Indonesia, increasingly also from Arabian and Farsi-speaking areas). Then there are congregations whose roots are in Europe, North and Latin America. Some congregations have become so international that they cannot be traced to any country.

Many of these congregations start as bible and prayer meetings in private households. They then increase in size, mostly to include 50 to 150 members, others consist of several hundred. Due to deportations, moving around and joining other congregations, the numbers of their members fluctuate. Some pastors cannot be financed by their congregations and have to earn their wages in other jobs.

Theology and the piety of these congregations reflect the whole latitude of global Protestantism.

Four types

They can be classified into four types:

  1. “Established denominational diaspora-congregations“ provide a spiritual and sociocultural home for countrymen of the same confession and region. These are mostly European Protestant congregations, orthodox churches and native-language missions. In most cases, they were established by the Churches of their home countries.

  2. “Free Church Mission congregations“ evangelize immigrants from countries suppressing Christian missionary activities, such as China, Vietnam, Turkey or Arabian countries. These congregations enjoy the support of German and international missionary societies.

  3. Congregations of reverse mission churches are charismatic-Pentecostal or African Independent Churches with a strong relationship to their mother churches in Africa or Korea. They see themselves as international congregations which also strive to evangelize Germans

  4. “Independent, non-denominational new mission churches“ also originate from Central and West Africa and are similar to type 3. They were founded here and have little contact to their churches in their home countries.

See Claudia Währisch-Oblau: Migrationskirchen in Deutschland. Überlegungen zur strukturierten Beschreibung eines komplexen Phänomens (Immigrant Churches in Germany. Reflections on the structured description of a complex phenomenon). In: Zeitschrift für Mission (Journal of Missions) 31. Jahrgang (2005), No. 1 - 2, Pages 19 - 39, here Pages 35 - 39.

Their valuable contribution

International congregations provide a spiritual and socio-cultural home for their members, who often live in Germany without a family and social connections. There, they find emotional safe spaces where they can gather strength to deal with the demands and discriminations they suffer as immigrants. The members of the congregations support each other in difficult situations spiritually, socially and practically. True-to-life faith, divine services in a familiar language and spirituality and sharing common experiences strengthen them throughout the joys and difficulties of everyday life.

International congregations see themselves more and more as bridge-builders and also wish to be of service to the countries which have welcomed them. For example, they organize homework groups or get involved in helping vulnerable people in their neighborhood. Many support development projects in their home countries.

The contribution international congregations make to their church and social environment is often not recognized. Their somewhat precarious situation very often prevents them from utilizing their potential. Several congregations have many members in badly paid jobs and in shift work – also on Sundays. These are conditions that the finances and binding cooperation of these congregations are badly affected by.

However, the tension between the lack of resources and a great passion lets a great vivacity and a deep faith in God grow in these congregations.

At evangelisch.de, Sabine Oberpriller describes very different international congregations in 10 articles.

In 2016, the magazine “Himmel und Erde“ (Heaven and Earth) for local radio programs in NRW published a short podcast about nine international congregations called “Hausbesuch“ (Home Visit)

Would you like to find out more about how international and local congregations support each other?