Berlin, a city still divided – between East and West, State and Free Church, Christian and non-Christian – serves as one of Movement Day Global Cities’ (MDGC) inspiring global-city partners. This month, we spoke with Pastor Axel Nehlsen, former director of Berlin’s city-wide network Gemeinsam für Berlin (Together for Berlin) to learn more about this urban center’s gospel landscape and some of the challenges facing German society today.
At present, 28% of Germany’s population identifies as traditionally Protestant and 29% identifies as Catholic. It is interesting to note that the nation’s history of being separated into ‘East’ and ‘West’ during the late twentieth century has impacted the way in which the Christian demographic within Germany is geographically located. Those aspects of the population that identify as Protestant or Catholic reside predominantly within the western and southern regions of the country, while the easternmost part of the nation cites church membership in general as being below 10%. Indeed, Pastor Nehlsen reports that East Germany is credited as being the most atheistic part of the world despite nationwide evangelistic campaigns and prayer initiatives that hope to see this reality change.
Described by Pastor Nehlsen as “an emerging European capital, a world city of culture, politics, media, and science, the bridge between Western and Eastern Europe, and a leader in societal developments and innovation,” the city of Berlin plays a leading role in Germany’s journey towards gospel movement. He notes, “If and where Berlin’s churches and Christians are taking responsibility for the spheres of arts and culture, education and law, business and economy, immigration and integration, they are impacting other German and European cities.”
According to Pastor Nehlsen, 60% of Berlin´s 3.5 million inhabitants are non-religious, with 33% of the city’s inhabitants identifying as nominal attendees of a Christian church and only 3.5% (approximately 40,000 city inhabitants) identifying themselves as born-again Christians. He notes however, that while “committed Jesus followers are a small minority in the city” the last 15 years have seen, “a movement of prayer, unity and transformation growing among churches.”
This change in perspective gave rise to the establishment of a city-wide interdenominational network “Gemeinsam für Berlin” (Together for Berlin, TfB) in 2002. Observes Pastor Nehlsen, “Fostering unity across the city was crucial and strategic. There needed to be a network of networks. TfB would identify and connect initiatives around the city that were impacting local communities. Far more than 100 missional initiatives were founded over the last 10 years; most of them are neighborhood-oriented, grassroots movements.” This emphasis on collaboration has also given rise to a perspective shift within the broader Christian community in Berlin. Observes Pastor Nehlsen, “More and more individual Christians, ministries and local churches are seeing the city from a broader Kingdom perspective – it’s not just “me and my church”, but “God´s Kingdom and the city.”
This spirit of collaboration and emphasis on “neighborhood-oriented, grassroots movements” has formed the foundation for an effective response to a significant challenge – the mass migration of refugees within Europe. Indeed, in 2015 alone, one million refugees – predominantly from the Middle East – arrived in Germany, a country with a population of 82 million. Observes Pastor Nehlsen, “What started as an exceptional humanitarian decision of Chancellor Merkel in September 2015 has now evolved into a serious discussion and caused a significant split in politics and society.”
Fear of terror attacks similar to those occurring in other European nations, the growing affiliation to right-wing populist parties, and the sheer challenge of attempting to integrate such large numbers of refugees into German society are the largest urban challenges facing both the city of Berlin and the nation of Germany as a whole. The mass migration of refugees has also impacted the composition of Germany and the city of Berlin’s faith community. Notes Pastor Nehlsen, “The number of Muslim believers (250,000 in 2014) is growing fast because of the refugee wave. In 2015 more than 70,000 refugees came to Berlin, part of them persecuted Christians, 90% of them Muslims from the Middle East.”
Pastor Nehlsen sees the refugee crisis as an opportunity for evangelism. He notes, “Evangelicals see the situation as an opportunity to tangibly show the love of Christ to Muslim people and demonstrate the gospel through word and action. Maybe this will turn out to be a great chance for missions in the Middle East that would not have been possible without the refugee crisis.”
Pastor Nehlsen sees the addition of these refugees to Berlin and Germany at large as a gift. He notes, “the growing number of lively immigrant churches is a gift to the Body of Christ to increase prayer and evangelization.”
Will you join us in lifting up the gospel movement in Berlin and the nation of Germany in prayer?