An Era Ends
“God does not live in temples built by human hands.” (Acts 17:24b)
Thursday, 25 June, was kind of a sad day. Not in the sense of unhappiness. More in the sense of melancholy or mourning. As is normally the case when it is time to bid farewell to something or someone you love and/or has been an important part of your life. Describing feelings in a second language is always difficult, and English is possibly my third. So, I hope you understand what I mean.
The photo is the building of Bethel International Baptist Church, in Frankfurt, Germany, which started being demolished that day. When I moved here to pastor this church in 2013, the situation was quite challenging: very low Sunday attendance and income, a debt, and a lack of a clear vision for the future.
Adding to the challenge was the ownership of the building you see, which is in the outskirts of the city, outside the underground zone. This was the perfect location for an international church in 1963 when the church was built, due to the proximity with the U.S. Army installations. But when the U.S. base closed in 1995, this location no longer made sense for a church reaching out to international people living all over the city, especially if they were coming by public transport. The church building was also very run down and not meeting current safety standards (outdated and unusable fire exit system, presence of asbestos, several leakage points on the roof, etc.).
The mission given to me in 2013 was clear: to lead a church revitalization process. Despite the challenges, the church had one major strength that became the driving force for the revitalization: they were extremely loving and welcoming! How many churches do you know that put themselves at risk by offering “sanctuary” to protect refugees against deportation? Our church did it! And it was a unanimous vote to do so. That says it all!
In fact, the church revitalization process succeeded much more because of the influx of refugees seeking Jesus and the loving attitude of the church members in welcoming them, than because of my leadership or “change management” skills. No “false-modesty” here; this is truly how I see it. Between 2014 and 2018 alone we baptized 68 refugees from Iran and Afghanistan, for instance.
By 2015 the church was already much healthier: the financial debt had been paid off, we were running more than a hundred people in our Sunday services and there was a big sense of excitement for the future. We started a consultancy process “ReFresh,” led by our dear friend Gary Preston in order to discern a vision for the future. Despite all that, the church building was still a big question mark.
As with any good Baptist church, we formed a committee to analyze the situation more closely (Baptists love committees!). Professional expertise was sought, and the reports we received from the architects were not very good: the cost of repairing the building was so high that it would actually be cheaper to demolish the building and erect a new one, if we wanted to remain there.
To be able to fund the construction of a new church building, the church would have to borrow money from the bank and be in debt for many years. All that to have a new building on a plot of land that was not the best location for our church. That fact was also confirmed by a feasibility study facilitated by the International Baptist Convention.
Everything was pointing in the direction of selling the church building and finding a new place to meet on Sundays. However, as you can imagine, that was a very emotional topic for many of our members. And, yes, as Baptists, that would have to be a decision made by the majority vote of the church members. So, we called the church members to start a process of prayer and discussions.
That was when something very interesting happened; the heating system of the building suddenly stopped working. We called different engineers to come and check it, and they all made the same technical statement: it couldn’t be repaired. That happened during a very cold winter in January 2016, and something had to be done so that we could meet there on Sundays.
We tried to bring electrical heaters, but the precarious electrical system would not cope with the load and would completely shut off. We tried to serve hot drinks, and some people even brought blankets to the services to keep themselves warm. But with such thin wooden walls, it was just impossible to keep warm in that building. After three very cold Sunday services we were already hearing reports of children getting sore throats and families choosing to skip services.
At that point, we started calling rental halls in Frankfurt to find a temporary place for our Sunday services. We must have called 50 places, no success. That was when Jimmy Martin asked me if I had tried the Adventist church. Since they are a German church that meets on Saturdays, perhaps they would allow us to use their building on Sundays.
What a great idea! The Adventist church welcomed us with open arms. And what was supposed to be a temporary arrangement became the permanent location for our Sunday services since then. This gave us a very central location in Frankfurt. Their beautiful worship hall can seat more people than we could seat in our old building. They have dedicated spaces for children and another hall for fellowship. It has a good size car park (very unusual in central Frankfurt!). All that convenience for our Sunday services came at a fair and affordable rental price. Our church staff moved offices to a “very cool” – I must say — co-working space, also used for smaller ministry gatherings. Without a permanent church building, the church started putting even more emphasis on week-day home group gatherings.
In 2017 we finally decided to sell the old church building. The proceeds from the sale, including future return on investments, are being used to advance the Gospel – not by erecting new church buildings, but by building people! This has always been a core value of our church. During my tenure as pastor we financially supported the studies of five trainee pastors. We employed and sent two full-time indigenous Muslim-background believers as missionaries. We saw two women being raised from our church as Christian NGO workers to serve missionally on Lesvos.
In 2018 we re-launched our church under a new vision and a new name: Multination Church. Since then, we have also used proceeds from the property sale to plant a new church, Multination Church London. We have a dream and a plan to use those resources to plant many more churches in international cities in the future. We will do that by investing in training and sending people, while still remaining free from building and land ownership.
What we have done might be counter-cultural, unconventional, eccentric, risky. What we have done might also not be what works best for every church group in every location around the globe. What we have done might even not be the model we will follow for the rest of our entire church life.
I understand that seeing a church building being knocked down is not the most pleasant image you will see today. What I can say is that, for me, it has been a great privilege to pastor a group of people who truly understood the basic biblical concept that “God does not live in temples built by human hands.” He lives inside each one of us who open our hearts to receive Him as our Lord and Savior. And when He does, our words and actions can only emanate love. We – the people – are His church!
It has also been a great honor to work with such a godly, humble, courageous, and unselfish group of elders, who always put discerning God’s voice as a priority over their own personal preferences. If I must make a confession – I personally had another idea for this property. But the more we talked and prayed together as leaders, I realized they were right! Yes, pastors are not always right and would do well in listening to their elders!
The demolition of the church building – as sad as it is – is just the last “seal” in the closure of what has been an amazing season of church revitalization. Is everything perfect at the church right now? Are we thriving and really where we should be? Not at all, but the ground is leveled and a beautiful new season is starting as a new pastor will come soon to continue to build God’s people.
In January I set in motion a transition process to step down from my position as pastor, as I clearly saw I had completed what God had trusted me to do at the church.
As for my future, all I know is that I will not be pastoring another church in my next season of life and ministry. I feel God is calling me to work full time in missions with a focus on aid and development, based from Frankfurt. If you would like to keep in touch about that, please email me at: [email protected]
I am grateful for everything I was able to experience as pastor of the church and for all the people He has brought into my life because of the ministry — people who were part of this amazing journey, even if for a short period of time, helping us to build what has become Multination Church today. I am also really looking forward to what God has in store for the church in the future!
Rodrigo Assis da Silva, Pastor, Multination Church, Frankfurt, Germany