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Andreas Heuser {*}

To a Large Extent Unknown Neighbours

Migration Parishes in Germany Show
the Multiplicity of Church


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 4/2007, P. 212-215
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In large cities such as Hamburg, Frankfurt or Berlin there are more than one hundred so-called migration churches with quite different social structures. Among the migration churches in Germany the "African" churches are the most extensive group.


In an industrial area of Limburg on the Lahn a parish celebrates its service in several languages, among them in an African lingue franca (Lingala, that is spoken in the Congo basin), in a global lingua franca, English, and of course in the native language of the children and young people present, i.e. German. The liturgy has clearly charismatic Pentecostal traits. Afro Germans and Africans of most different national origin, most - like also the parish leader - from the Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Angola and also Mozambique belong to the parish. But there are just as naturally also people with European, more exactly Eastern European migration biographies, people from Ukraine, Slovakia.

As different as their geographical origin is their denominational origin: as for example former Catholics, Anglicans or also Atheists. And finally there are also parish members with genuine German migration biographies, i.e. such who are on the spiritual search, who moved from Land Church to Free Church, and who due to certain dream intuitions about a - I quote - "church under banana plants" ended up in the (by them in this way characterized) "African" Church.

Is it an African church or rather some kind of popular church of people with different migration background? The linguistic usage of the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD) would include them in the "parishes and churches of different language and origin". The leadership of the parish itself resists these labels, which it gets only by the view of the host society and attribute to it an identity characterised by cultural strangeness, distance and also exoticism. It simply insists on being received as a "Christian" church in Germany.

In this respect the designation "migration church" used here is again a foreign category. But it is a useful search concept that allocates to the experience of migration a seminal help to understand this church reality. Mainly faithful with migration background gather in such parishes, which have been founded by migrants in order to offer people a spiritual home. They bring unfamiliar Christian dialects into our environment and diversify the church life with accents of their own. Above all the term 'migration churches' avoids a danger attached to the alternatively common term "Diaspora churches". In the European context this definition could foster the ideological abuse that members of these churches would not belong "to us" but "there".

The gradually beginning more intensive study of the migration churches in Germany confirms by statistic data alone that it is by no means about a marginal phenomenon of society or church.. In large cities such as Hamburg, Frankfurt or Berlin there are in each (case) far more than one hundred parishes - as far as they have so far at all been noticed and registered. But migration churches are not limited to urbane milieus; as our case example shows they have arrived in regional centres of the rural area.

Migration churches have by no means a homogeneous social structure. On the contrary, they represent various patterns of community. Even such parishes that could by means of geographical criteria be called for example "African" are in their organisational structure, their liturgical programme and in their respective theological centre 'plural'.

A typology of this multitude of migration churches could differentiate between daughter parishes of historical and classical Pentecostal churches, or also offshoots from so-called African independent churches. Recently also some of the predominantly in the nineties created charismatic mega churches give themselves an international character with a world-wide net of local parishes.



The degree of autonomy respectively the institutional linking of the local parish to the mother church is in each case in quite different ways developed. There are also federations of charismatic Pentecostal parishes which were created by migrants in Germany. These parishes are organizationally loosely connected and often have their theological sources of inspiration outside Germany (for example in Ghana or in the USA).

Parishes of charismatic coinage founded in Germany with the primary aim to consolidate themselves as local parishes, are closely related to this type. They refrain from joining supranational cross-linking and see themselves more determinedly as part of the German church landscape. They deliberately recruit a mixed membership of German and African Christians. Furthermore there are the so-called ecumenical parishes, i.e. parishes founded in Germany in order to admit people of different church origin. In their liturgical life they interweave characteristics of charismatic piety with the traditions of the historical churches. These parishes are often the starting point of ecumenical initiatives within African churches and in contact with German local parishes. Thus by their mediation African churches in Hamburg for example have got the status of guest membership in the Working Group Christian Churches (ACK) of that city.

Finally one finds churches that have integrated themselves into the structure of their German sister church, with full equality of their liturgical and theological peculiarities. This integration model is up to now an exception.

Diverse conceptions of missionary theology correspond to these different organizational structures. There are - particularly among the Pentecostal-charismatically moulded churches which are predominant -, voices that consider themselves to be categorically missionary (in the sense of evangelistic), and see Germany as mission country.

Usually - even when we accommodate them as permanent guests in our church buildings and parish halls - also German parishes notice migration churches only as to a large extent unknown neighbours. If one pursues the debate about parishes or missions using the mother tongue, then this probably applies even to the Catholic Church, which - by establishing parishes of native language - intends to entrust church migration work predominantly to co-workers from the homeland churches of the migrants.

The consequences have occasionally been described, particularly with regard to the pastoral dimensions. On the one hand, so one criticism is , the German-language parishes felt not responsible for migrants in their pastoral area, on the other the native missionaries had no common experience of life with the second or third generation of the migrants' parishes. There was not only a distance in the pastoral care, what was more this method of assigning was hardly suitable to accompany the integration of migrants into the German-language society and church.

The dimension it is all about is illustrated by a look at Frankfurt, where about a third of all Catholic Church members belongs to native language missions. Sometimes rather pessimistic observers of this two-way pastoral of German local church and migrants' parishes talk about a "side church" that furthermore had hardly found attention in German pastoral theology. That means that substantial theological concepts are missing, that migrants' parishes where the mother tongue is used remain thrown back on their own resources, and there is a risk of duality, i.e. that such missions develop as parallel and not-integrated parts of the Catholic population.


Interdenominational Competence and Amazing Conversion Biographies

Certainly, there is also the counterargument singing the praise of diversity. Deplored is just not the lack of living and working together of German and mother tongue parishes, on the contrary, one underlines the possibility of an independent development of migrant parishes contributing their own dialect of the universal Catholic Church to the German context. Such voices, which amazingly enough mainly originate from circles of the migrant pastoral care postulate the right to peculiarity, to cultural and religious diversity. In this argumentation one presupposes a maintained continuity of faith traditions passed on over generations of migrants. This view is based on the religion-sociological assumption that popular-religious constants for instance of a Polish or Ghanaian Catholicism develop, which are also recognizable and distinguishable when people of the second and third generation are long since familiar with the culture and language of the immigration country.

These assumptions of an ethnically restricted conception of religion and culture are in dispute; equally the assumption of a statically understood religious identity needs closer examination. Sharply interpreted a right to diversity deliberately looked for by minorities or imposed by the majority, can easily lead to an - otherwise much deplored - development of a "parallel society". But migration churches are positively looking for ecumenical proximity and establish new forms of church federations!

Among the migration churches in Germany the so-called "African" churches are the most extensive group. Sam Kobia, the Secretary-General of the ECC, had just it in mind when in 2005 he suggested to achieve a "broader understanding of ecumenical relations" in Europe. But he owed the concrete details of it. Here a look at migration churches helps.



The members of migration churches in their majority have a high interdenominational competence at their disposal. The conversion biographies arising from migration experiences are amazing. It happens that up to 90 per cent of the members of a charismatic Pentecostal migration church in Germany at the time of their migration, i.e. in their countries of origin, did not belong to such charismatic Pentecostal churches. Hence we talk about former Catholics, Presbyterians and Methodists etc. But in Germany they roam about the religious landscape. They look for a church home and only seldom find it in our established churches. Some of them experiment even some time with this, then with another migration church. Not a few of them have multiple church affiliations. Many members of migration churches are of course church tax payers, hence formal members of the Protestant or Catholic Church.

This (their) seemingly daring balancing act between quite different church cultures in Germany is made easier by the religious experimentation area in which the churches of origin of many migrants move. For example many members of migration churches in Germany come from the church laboratory West Africa, at present perhaps one of the most vital regions, in which the forms of Christianity change and single out anew.

In West Africa all churches without exception are subject to a process in which the whole church life is charismatically moulded. Who participates in a service can - at a certain time - hardly any longer distinguish this church from others. The songs which are sung, the prayers which are loudly spoken, the music which, electronically amplified, is played by a young band - everything becomes alike. Even the rhetoric of the preachers is exchangeable. This re-organization of the church topography reacts over the migration churches upon our church landscape. But in this country these new assignment processes inside Christianity are little known yet. Often theological prejudices towards charismatic movements dominate the scene.

Also to initiate ecumenical learning processes for some years there have been first theological training projects which purposefully address migration parishes. Meanwhile these inter-denominationally offered projects are established in several Protestant Land Churches Among other things they offer help to better understand the society of the host country - its religious and church life, but also its social structures. In a word: all participants bind their perceptions of difference into a productive theological effort to understand the others. The migration parishes with high commitment take advantage of these training programmes.

The integration capacity of migration churches becomes apparent in new ecumenical platforms as well. Since the year 2001 the Council of Christian Churches of an African Approach in Europe (CCCAAE) exists as co-ordination framework for migration churches of African origin on European level. The history of the CCCAAE goes back to the middle of the nineties and up to this day finds support particularly by migration churches in Great Britain, Germany, France, Switzerland and the Benelux countries.

The principal purposes of the CCCAAE are to link the migration churches structurally and to promote the co-operation with the European churches. But the CCCAAE faces socio-political and theological challenges.



It wants to become a forum for specific problems of African immigrants, as for instance the experience of racist discrimination, demands equal rights for African women in church and society and faces an increasingly pressing challenge, i.e. the question of secularity and its effects on the education of the second and third generation of African immigrants.


High Integration Capacity of the Migration Churches

In order to give itself a recognizable profile among the European churches, the CCCAAE aims at a theological promotion programme which above all traces the history of the African church and theology in Europe and substantially refers to findings of the Diaspora and migration research. At the same time the trans-national dimension of the CCCAAE refers not alone to Africa and Europe, but absolutely includes the history of the Caribbean scattering since the times of the transatlantic slave trade. The presence of African-Caribbean migration churches in Great Britain is particularly remarkable.

In order to advance the theological conception of itself the CCCAAE holds regular European conferences in co-operation with church institutions like university institutes. The so far last of these ambitious conferences took place in 2003 near Berlin. The choice of the meeting place was of symbolic expressiveness, because it dealt with the division of Africa since the Berlin Congo Conference in 1884/85 and considered its consequences for the development and the history of the missionary work of the continent. To underline Berlin's importance the CCCAAE established here also the office of the Secretary-General. Since most recent time there are discussion agreements on establishing stronger ties of the CCCAAE to the Ecumenical Council of the churches (and the next conference is planned for the year 2008 in Geneva).

Even though the CCCAAE agreed on common aims and was able to give itself extremely quickly a firm organisational structure, the lack of financial resources nevertheless hinders the realization of some matters worth striving for. Indeed, the institutional conditions of African migration churches are of a precarious nature. They become all the more apparent when one compares African with for example Asian migration churches in Germany and brings out the respective status of migration. Then one will be able to recognize how much these churches differ in their structural conditions, how strongly they differ in their social basis and in their personnel as well as economic resources.

Some data giving a clue are on hand in the example of selected migration parishes in Hamburg. While about 100 per cent of the members of Korean and Indonesian parishes have a safe legal status, this portion amounts to about 40 per cent in an African parish, otherwise expressed, the large majority of parish members has no safe residence status.

While Korean parishes have every now and then a weekly collection of 1000 euro at their disposal, African parishes even avoid reporting concrete numbers regarding this. The building of their parishes must get along with much minor means, which besides do not flow continuously and therefore cannot permanently be included in their plans. The personnel possibilities too are different. Indonesian parishes, which originally developed in diplomat and student circles, can trust in a certain stratum of educated people, which in this breadth is missing to African migration churches.

Nevertheless the challenges African migration churches are faced with are eminent. The pastoral care in African parishes has to master various crises threatening the existence of their members. A recent social study, which was ordered by the 'Diakonisches Werk' (welfare and social work) of the Protestant Church in Hessian and Nassau, for the first time exposed reliable findings about the life of migrants without legal residence status. In Frankfurt alone approximately 42000 people live without legal papers, without rights, without perspective. Between five and ten per cent of them, a startling number, are children. These illegal people work predominantly in classical service industries, in the low wage sector, in households or also as prostitutes. Most of them live in adverse housing conditions, have to pay too expensive rents and frequently change the lodging; as a result many of them are time and again homeless.

This describes the starting position of many parishes with African migration background in Germany. The faithful expect answers to problems resulting from their dealings with various authorities, they hope for support in affairs of residence permit, which happens occasionally at the margin of legality, as well as in the search for employment and housing. Add to it that a steady building of parishes is often enough disturbed by the fact that parish leaders are even deported in cases of contentious residence status. So far hardly openly mentioned is the topic of HIV/AIDS. Besides African parishes experience the dealings with their growing up young people as great challenge. They often slip from the church's educational ideals and disappear into the large unknown 'secularity'


Among the migration churches African parishes actually have the largest problems of self-preservation, and at the same time they have to master enormous welfare and social challenges, if they want to be relevant for their members. Hence the question to the established churches: are you ready for that "wider understanding of ecumenical relations" of which Sam Kobia reminded?


    {*} Andreas Heuser (born in 1961) since 2005 holds the 'Profile post' for ecumenism and education in the Protestant Church in Hessian and Nassau with his office in Limburg/Lahn. Before that he was supervisor of studies at the 'Missionsakademie' at the University of Hamburg. The main focus of work of the political scientist, who has gained a doctorate in theology, are history of the African Church and missionary work there, African religions in South Africa, migration churches in Europe and Germany and the Pentecostal movement.


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