Review: German Pentecostal Church Planting

Clark, Paul.  German Pentecostal Church Planting, 1945-2005: Implications for Intentional Mission in the Twenty-First Century.  Benton Harbor, MI: Priority Publishing, 2011.

Pentecostalism is booming.  From Capetown to Singapore to Rio de Janeiro, the barely hundred-year-old movement is making its presence felt wherever it goes.  Its continuing expansion across the global South in recent years has, among other things, created a veritable cottage industry for those willing to research and discuss the work of the Holy Spirit in the myriad cultural worlds of the now.  The flurry of popular and academic attention to such contemporary developments has been intense.  In the process, however, many older and just as unique indigenizations have been ignored.

This volume by Paul Clark is a helpful corrective to this trend.  By focusing on German Pentecostal church growth over the past 60 years, Clark reveals the movement’s unique path in the heart of old Europe.  As a veteran missionary church planter in Germany, Clark’s approach to his subject matter is both informed and immediate.  The careful research work he has done here tells of a religious movement nearly as old as Azusa Street, but which developed under vastly different circumstances.

Clark’s purpose is to provide “insights to assist present and future church planters in Germany” (5) as they and others come to “understand contextual and theological issues unique to Germany” (10).  Following a literature review of the German language sources relevant to the topic at hand, a discussion of biblical models of church planting, and the context of the Freikirchen (Free Churches), Clark turns his attention to the deep history of Pentecostalism in Germany.  Outsiders from the beginning, German Pentecostals were not welcomed in the state-funded churches and came into existence as culturally suspect “Free Churches.”  Not long after the movement took root in 1906, German believers faced the additional pressure of being labeled as cultic and even Satanic by fellow evangelical Free Church Christians—not to mention German society at large.  For Clark, this 1909 Berlin Declaration helped create an image of Pentecostals that has been as damning as it has been lasting.

The five German church groups studied for this monograph are: the Bund Freikirchler Pfingstgemeinden (BFP), the Volksmission, the Ecclesia Fellowship of Churches, the Mulheim Association, and the Church of God.  Clark investigates all of the German-speaking church plants operating with the cooperation of these groups in the post-WWII era, provided the congregations are still in existence.  He then sorts the churches into eleven categories according to the circumstances of their founding.  Clark rejects two of these categories–churches founded by refugees from the East and by splits in existing churches–as poor models upon which to base further church planting.  Planting churches by use of evangelistic meetings, while showing some success in the past, is also downplayed as less than useful in modern Germany.

The remaining categories of historical church planting retain viability for Clark: resident clergy or layperson initiated, mother church plants, foreign missionary initiated, organic development from the Charismatic Movement, non-resident clergy/lay initiated, home cell group initiated, derivatives of youth oriented ministry, and as the result of proximity to a national or international ministry.  Of these models, Clark elevates the mother-daughter church paradigm as key.  Further, he strongly encourages the use of interpersonal missionary connections rather than institutional outreach.

Clark’s study has much to commend it.  Most notable is the care and diligence with which he assembles the data that comprises this study.  Scholars and church leaders will be glad of it for years to come.  For the English-speaking reader, his is a rare insight into German Pentecostalism that elucidates the unique context of Pentecostalism in a secular land that maintains its cultural allegiance to a state-funded Staatskirche.  The slow numerical growth witnessed by church planters in Germany is thus not surprising.  Clark’s additional observations about the use of the home cell group and suggestions for dialogue and cooperation between the major Pentecostal groups once again reminds readers that his knowledge of the movement is both as deep as it is practical.

Alas, there are some drawbacks to Clark’s work.  First, he often lacks the specificity needed to adequately make his point.  Throughout the book and in his title, for instance, he continually refers to the need for “intentional” ministry.  The term is both undefined and overused in the book, in the process rendering it essentially meaningless.  By not clearly spelling out what he means theologically, he weakens a major piece of his argument.  So too his occasional assertions of “emotional excesses” (49) on the part of some German Pentecostals remains opaque.  He neither historically nor philosophically explains what he means by this language, in the process clouding one of the criticisms made against the movement.

Second, Clark’s approach is rather unfocused.  He does well in establishing the facts on the ground and analyzing the data, but when he moves from analysis to practical recommendations, he seems to have missed a step or two.  His approach to his findings and suggestions mostly takes the form of lists.  While some of what he has to offer is vital, other conclusions—such as “pastors need to lead by example” (146)—seem neither particularly profound nor necessarily derived from his research.  A more focused thesis, the removal of excess and sometimes unnecessary commentary, and more deliberate argumentation would help organize his findings more helpfully.

In spite of these drawbacks, Clark’s work stands alone as one of the only—if not the only—full-length English work on indigenous German Pentecostalism.  Because German Pentecostal Church Planting, 1945-2005 exists at the crossroads of the historical, sociological, practical, and theological, it is hard to criticize it for occasionally unwanted editorializing.  Many of Clark’s comments are both insightful and apropos, and will bear much fruit for those willing to read both his monograph and peruse the associated twenty-two appendices of data and related material.  Missionaries, pastors, and other ministry workers in Western Europe will be wise to study it closely as they contemplate the work at hand.  English-speaking students of global Pentecostalism and sociologists of religion will alike both find much to provoke conversation and reflection on this small corner of the diverse and changing world religious landscape.

Reviewed by Dr. Joshua R. Ziefle, Northwest University

Published also in German: Clark, Paul. Die Gründung von Pfingstgemeinden in Deutschland, 1945-2005 : Implikationen für intentionale Mission im 21. Jahrhundert.  Benton Harbor, MI: Priority Publishing, 2011.

Paperback, 280 pages. €16.95 retail. Order from: Priority Publishing.

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One response to “Review: German Pentecostal Church Planting

  1. Pingback: Review: German Pentecostal Church Planting | Flower Pentecostal … | churchoutreachministry.net

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