Pastor Axel Nehlsen gazed in disappointment at the meager crowd. Billy Graham stood before the Reichstag, addressing the people of Berlin on a chilly March day. The infamous Berlin Wall had fallen just four months earlier, and Christian leaders believed God would follow that miracle with revival in Germany.
It wasn’t happening. Only a few thousand people had showed up — barely a fifth the expected turnout — and most were already believers. Spiritual harvest had not arrived.
Today, some 13 years later, Berliners still await spiritual awakening. “The wall is still in people’s hearts and minds,” explains Pastor Hans-Peter Pache, for 23 years a pastor in what is known in Germany as a free church. “There’s a wall between east and west, German and non-German, old and young, evangelical and charismatic.”
But Hans-Peter and Axel, together with Cru and others, are spearheading Together for Berlin, an effort to tear down those walls. And as those walls come down, Christians hope to see God thaw a spiritual climate long known as cold and gloomy.
Christianity in Berlin got off to a bad start. Back in 1140, a local prince decreed that everyone be baptized or die. “I’m convinced this has influenced the spiritual atmosphere,” says Hans-Peter. “People have been negative toward Christianity ever since, and Berlin has never experienced revival.”
During the Cold War, young radicals flocked to West Berlin to avoid military service, explains Axel, a Protestant state-church pastor. It became a greenhouse for left-wing political concepts, and today, those former radicals hold positions of power. Meanwhile East Berlin, center of the communist system, isolated and persecuted Christians.
The historic merger of east and west in 1989 created a city of nearly 4 million. Only 3 percent regularly attend church. And of those attending, no more than half-an estimated 60,000 people-have a living faith.
“Bringing change to this situation is like changing the climate,” says Axel. “It is slow, but only a tenth of a degree brings great change.”
In the late 1990s Duane Conrad, leader of Cru in Germany, visited Berlin pastors to learn about the needs of the city. “How can we help you?” he asked Axel, Hans-Peter and others. “What are your needs?” Pastors said that they felt lonely, isolated and discouraged at the low level of spiritual interest in the city.
Then in May 1998, Cru invited Christian leaders from four key European cities — London, Paris, Rotterdam and Berlin — to meet in London and share their ideas. “None of us knows how to do city ministry well,” Duane said to the Berliners. “Let’s meet and talk about what we can do.”
Four men joined Duane in London, where they concluded the greatest need was for pastors to meet each other, to realize they were not alone. Back in Berlin, they invited dozens of pastors and their wives to a prayer breakfast.
This breakfast has grown into Together for Berlin, a network of pastors and Christian leaders seeking to influence all areas of the city with the gospel. The members do not consider themselves to be an official ecumenical structure, but rather a group of individuals.
As Christian leaders meet each other through the prayer breakfasts and other forums, they discover ways to improve their partnership. Last year, for example, Together for Berlin sponsored “50 Days of Prayer for Berlin,” a worldwide call to pray for Berlin.
“Cru was the catalyst pulling us together,” says Axel. “Since they were not a local denomination, they were not a threat.”
Cru had a strong reservoir of credibility, too, due to successful ministry among the 130,000 university students of Berlin back in the 1970s. Today, staff members are also developing FamilyLife, ministries within the arts and diplomatic communities, and outreaches to business and professional people.
“We need the direct ministry,” says Duane, referring to the personal outreach of individual staff members, “but if that is all we do, we won’t reach the city. It’s too big. We need the partnerships.”
Partnerships influence the spiritual climate in various ways. Every year on May Day, for example, radicals unleash violent demonstrations. Last April 30 Together for Berlin sent youth on prayer walks to places where violence had taken place, and that May 1 marked one of the most peaceful demonstrations in years.
“A non-Christian bar owner told us that usually on May 1 his place is like a hospital,” says Cru staff member Fritz Wilkening, “with people lying injured on the floor. But this year he said it was like a big family party!”
The partnerships also benefit church planters by helping missionaries and local churches alike better focus their efforts. “When we start a new church,” says Hans-Peter, “prayer warriors research the area first. In one area, they felt spiritual oppression. Then they found out the train station had been used to ship Jews to death camps, so they prayed for forgiveness.”
Not everybody accepts this concept of working together, though. Some free-church pastors feel there is too much talking and too little action. And some state-church pastors feel there is too much prayer and too little action. “When we planted our first daughter church,” says Hans-Peter, “an official said, ‘Go away; this is our area. Go to the east if you want to plant a church.'”
“But as a state-church pastor,” Axel breaks in quickly, “let me say we need hundreds of new churches. We need megachurches and small churches, contemporary and traditional, churches in German and in other languages. Only with such variety will we reach the city. There are just so many people.”
Eventually, Hans-Peter hopes to see 10 percent of Berliners turn to Christ, along with the establishment of 1,700 churches. He knows that climate change takes time, so he talks of “cathedral thinking.”
Before building a cathedral, Hans-Peter explains, you must first plant a grove of oak trees. Why? Because in 100 years, the next generation will build with the timbers from the oaks. “My two sons are both studying theology,” he says. “Perhaps they will be the ones to see my dreams become reality.”
But perhaps not. As Christians of Berlin come together in prayer, God may well choose to change the spiritual climate much more quickly. As Duane points out, “We’ve seen God do more in the past year than anyone dreamed possible.”