A reverend from Ghana has turned a former supermarket in Germany into a church. He hopes to fill it with one of Germany's fastest growing faith groups: evangelicals. But his good-news-only style isn't quite catching on.
In just a decade, the number of evangelical Christians in Germany has doubled - and Ghana-born evangelical Rev. Edmund Sackey Brown has grand plans to ride this new wave. In 2011 he purchased a former Edeka supermarket in Mülheim an der Ruhr, in the heartland of Germany's industrial region, and converted it into an evangelical house of worship: The House of Solution.
He is convinced that within 10 years his 600-member congregation, comprised mostly of African immigrants from the surrounding areas, will swell to 5,000. He has pledged his commitment on the number plate of his Mercedes "MH FJ 5000" (Mülheim for Jesus 5000). "Centuries ago, Europeans came to Africa with the word of God. But these days Europe is a godless center. It needs redeeming," says Sackey Brown, "My mission is to re-Christianize Europe."
According to Sackey Brown's vision, Christianity's sweeping re-embrace of Europe will not come from an increase in African immigration, but from first-generation African-Germans spreading the word of God to their peers. "Hope is with the new generation. They can be disciples of God," he says. But the children of African immigrants are a minority group within a minority group - hardly the catalyst for a near-future boom - and the fact that the church's weekly youth service has been scaled back to every other week is a signal that things are not going to plan.
The youth service is not the only setback in Sackey Brown's vision. Plans for a multi-million dollar renovation of The House of Solution are yet to bear fruit. Instead, the pre-existing oversized apples and bananas hanging from the ceiling where the former fresh food section used to be, serve as ad hoc decoration and the mobile toilets in the parking lot make do for now.
If you build it, will they come?
German-born Jan Sickinger, now the coordinator for community outreach programs at The House of Solution, is the son of a Protestant pastor. As he came of age, he grew wary of Protestantism's increasingly "liberal social theology" and craved a closer connection to the Gospel. So he found salvation as a born-again believer, married an African evangelical and started working at Sackey Brown's church.
Despite handing out thousands of advertising pamphlets and organizing expensive stage productions in the city center, Sickinger has struggled to bring outsiders to the church. "I don’t think there's any church in Germany that is actually growing at the moment," he says, defending his own church's sagging numbers more than lamenting the larger situation in Germany. "I mean, the first German missions to Africa and South America didn't change things overnight."
But in the greater historical context, The House of Solution's plan for radical growth in just 10 years is ambitious. Other German evangelical churches, however, are enjoying steady growth. Though evangelicals account for only about 3 percent of the German population, they are an relatively devout group; the number of those who attend church regularly is comparable with the Protestants, one of Germany's two major faith groups, together with Catholics.
Gospel Forum in Stuttgart is Germany's largest evangelical church with 80 nationalities represented among a mostly German-born congregation. Every Sunday, 4,000 people come to listen to Pastor Peter Wenz's German-language sermons while others watch via live stream, and, next month, a third Sunday service will welcome even more church-goers into the fold. Gospel Forum has the look and feel of a successful contemporary mega-church, which is exactly what The House of Solution hopes to become.
But with his congregation still stagnant at 600, Sackey Brown is understandably reluctant to invest in the aphorism, "If you build it, they will come."
The evolution of style
The sharp rise of Christianity in Africa is a 20th-century phenomenon. It mushroomed largely on account of self-propagating evangelism rather than the efforts of European missionaries in the colonial era. Over the passage of time, this process gave rise to thousands of denominations that are stylistically and even theologically removed from their Western origins.
"It could be argued that the center of evangelical Christianity has shifted to the former colonial outposts through Africa and Central America. As for whether the outposts can bring Christianity back to Europe, I doubt it," Karl Gabriel, a professor at the Institute of Christian Social Sciences at Westfälische Wilhelm’s University in Münster, told DW. "The nature of evangelicalism in these parts is such that groups are constantly splintering into alternative denominations, each with such different styles, which makes it difficult for any one group to have a broad influence in a place like Europe which has been historically aligned with a centralized church."
Where the Europeans spread Christianity with force and brutality in centuries past, Sackey Brown's personal style is chummy comedy and good vibrations. Sunday services kick off with Sackey Brown at the keyboard in a jazzy five-piece suit. A choir fronted by a diva soloist leads the congregation through a medley of full-throated, multilingual hymns.
'We don't preach bad news!'
The three-hour sermon is in English and, though there are headsets for simultaneous German, Spanish and Arabic translations, not many use them. This doesn’t mean the congregation's general level of English comprehension is strong - quite the contrary. But the way Sackey Brown bounces around the stage is almost theatrical - even without understanding every word, you can tell when he's angling for a laugh, and he gets it every time. His audience wants to be entertained.
"We don't preach bad news. That is not the style. You can watch the TV for that!" says Sackey Brown. Thornier topics like sexual morality, gender roles, divorce, evolution and euthanasia are generally reserved for Bible study sessions and private consultations. German-born Manfred and Ulrike Sämisch, an older couple, say they like the spectacle of the service: "We're not like most Germans. We're not stuffy. We like new things."
In German, Manfred Sämisch says, "I get the drift of what is being said, more or less. The words aren’t the most important thing for me. I like the singing, the music, the emotions." As Manfred and Ulrike Sämisch point out, they are very much an exception. They first encountered this style of worship when they were living in South Africa, and now The House of Solution serves as a sentimental touchstone.
The sense of home that The House of Solution offers means it has pride of place in Mülheim an der Ruhr where an otherwise marginalized immigrant population lives. To that end, the church has proven popular with those who share a cultural heritage with Sackey Brown. But this is, at least for now, a very small pool.