Pearson on Enns, 'Saving Germany: North American Protestants and Christian Mission to West Germany, 1945 -1974'

Author: 
James C. Enns
Reviewer: 
Benjamin C. Pearson

James C. Enns. Saving Germany: North American Protestants and Christian Mission to West Germany, 1945 -1974. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2017. 328 pp. $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7735-4913-5.

Reviewed by Benjamin C. Pearson (Excelsior College)
Published on H-German (November, 2017)
Commissioned by David Harrisville

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=50367

Different Missions

Although their overall numbers are small, Anglo-American style evangelicals (Evangelikaler) have come in recent years to play an outsized role in German religious life. Their public visibility, media savvy, political connections, and contagious enthusiasm have served as a visible counterpoint to both the seemingly moribund established churches and the secular mainstream culture.[1] Popular reactions to the evangelical phenomenon range from admiration to condescension, bemusement, and alarm.[2] Until recently, however, these movements have received little concerted attention from mainstream historians, including historians of German Christianity, with most scholarship instead produced by insiders to the movement.[3]

James Enns’s new monograph, Saving Germany: North American Protestants and Christian Mission to West Germany, 1945-1974, helps to fill this void, highlighting one significant element in the story of German evangelicalism. At the same time, Enns also attempts to offer a broad-based comparison of the different North American missionary movements and approaches active in Germany after World War II. This effort is successful as a comparison of North American missionary case studies, and indeed gives rise to some fruitful observations. However, the case studies that Enns provides are not always adequately situated within the larger context of German religious history, which makes it hard to assess their true significance. 

Enns’s treatment of the different organizations in his study is also uneven, with some receiving far more detailed attention than others. While the nominal scope of his project is broad enough to include all of the major North American Protestant missions—from the work of mainline Protestants affiliated with the World Council of Churches to the Mennonite Central Committee and various Baptist denominational missions—the vast bulk of his attention is directed toward the work of conservative evangelical parachurch groups such as Youth for Christ (YFC), Janz Team Ministries (JTM), and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA).

Enns traces the trajectory of North American Protestant missions to Germany from the end of World War II to the 1970s. As he explains, the initial impetus for most North American missionary activity in Germany was humanitarian, responding to the physical destruction, material need, and social breakdown that accompanied German defeat. At the same time, most North American missionaries (and, indeed, most European and German Christians as well) saw an equally pressing need for moral and spiritual renewal in the wake of Nazism and in the face of an advancing communist threat. 

As other historians have also documented, the occupying authorities in western Germany (and particularly the Americans), viewed Germany’s churches as among the only remaining institutions capable of cooperating in either of these tasks.[4] The vast majority of material aid to Germany was distributed through the Protestant and Catholic religious charities Hilfswerk and Caritas, and much was supplied by North American partner institutions. Even as they provided this aid, outside Christian groups—including the World Council of Churches and denominational sister organizations to the various German Free Churches—demanded an accounting for the Nazi past as the price of restored fellowship and readmission into the worldwide Christian community. They also partnered with German Christian organizations—many of which were newly created in the aftermath of the war—to promote both religious renewal and Western democratic values.

As the immediate postwar crisis passed, the role of these ecumenical and missions organizations gradually evolved. In Enns’s telling, the World Council of Churches and its member organizations saw their work in Germany as largely finished by the early 1950s, although it had a formative influence on ecumenical approaches to other mission fields. Material prosperity had been restored and the West Germans were well on their way toward reintegration into the Western alliance and the Christian ecumene. Denominational missions organizations, including the Mennonite Central Committee and various Baptist missions, continued to support affiliated groups in Germany, also sponsoring some ongoing missionary activity and the construction of new seminaries. At the same time, evangelical parachurch organizations dedicated to mass evangelism and revival redoubled their efforts and saw considerable success. Motivated by the desire to spread an individualist Christian faith characterized by personal conversion and, to an almost equal extent, by the belief that Christianity was the last bulwark against encroaching communism, these North American evangelical missions focused on evangelism through large-scale revival meetings. 

Youth for Christ brought their enormously successful mixture of Christianized American youth culture and franchising savvy to their work in Germany. Their efforts were greatly assisted by the appeal of all things American to Germany’s youth, but were also sometimes hindered by their close association with the United States. In particular, the strong and lingering association between YFC and the American military, which had first brought the organization to Germany, could hinder its appeal to those more ambivalent about America’s role in the world.

Janz Team Ministries, which began in the revivalist ministry of a gospel music quartet from western Canada and grew into a sizable media ministry, was less hindered by this cultural and geopolitical baggage. Enns credits its success to the efforts of its members to accommodate German sensibilities and culture, learning German, living in Germany, and seeking to root its approach in both the German and the Anglo-American traditions. Although its members largely shared the anticommunist sensibilities of YFC and other conservative evangelical groups, they were more culturally sensitive in their expression of these views. Enns argues that JTM’s work with German partners helped to legitimize revivalist Christianity in Germany, while also strengthening and providing an identity for an existing network of evangelism-focused conservative Protestants.

According to Enns, the work of JTM also helped to set the stage for Billy Graham’s much-publicized and widely successful evangelism campaigns. Graham, preoccupied with the communist threat like many of his fellow American evangelicals, initially struggled to speak the cultural language of his German audiences. However, his efforts to collaborate with local churches and the visible success of his crusades (measured in both media attention and in the “decision cards” filled out by those who came forward at his rallies), earned him the acceptance of the conservative wing of the Protestant establishment. Like JTM, Graham’s ministry through the BGEA played an important role in building an evangelical network in Germany and legitimizing evangelical beliefs and practices. 

In the 1970s and beyond, North American missions to Germany followed the trend of evangelical missions more broadly, as seen in a push for contextualization of the Christian message within local forms of culture and the gradual indigenization of missionary work. These trends again strengthened the existing network of evangelicals in Germany, helping to reinforce their identity and make them a highly visible current in the broader stream of German Christianity.

Enns’s narrative offers an intriguing glimpse into both the emergence of Anglo-American style evangelicalism in Germany and into the complex relationship between evangelical missions, anticommunism, and American pop culture. However, there are some significant gaps in his narrative. While Enns argues (like Richard Pells) that American culture was not simply force-fed to Europeans, but was taken up, adapted, and remade in indigenous forms, he offers relatively few tangible examples of this.[5] His argument would be greatly strengthened by more sustained attention to the recipients of North American missions and to the reception history of their evangelistic message. In particular, given the extent to which Enns emphasizes the role of North American missions in shaping Germany’s own evangelical movement, providing broader contextualization of the origins and growth of this movement seems rather essential to his argument.

Equally problematic is Enns’s casual dismissal of the influence of ecumenical Christianity after the early 1950s. While it is understandable that a study dedicated specifically to North American missionary activity would deemphasize indigenous forms of Christian ministry, this lack of attention to local context causes Enns to overlook or dismiss some natural points of comparison. Enns is certainly correct to observe that ecumenical Protestants defined their missionary role quite differently from evangelicals, focusing more attention on the creation of a Christian public sphere and the promotion of public religious discourse. But to see their work in Germany as essentially over by the early 1950s is to overlook the enormous and ongoing influence of the ecumenical movement and its ideals in shaping new forms of mainline German Protestantism. This influence was not simply the product of North American missions, to be sure, but rather comprised a complex web of interactions between the German churches and the larger ecumenical movement. But this is not so different from the “contextualization” and “indigenization” of missions that evangelicals, too, began to embrace by the 1970s.[6]

Perhaps the most obvious missed opportunity for comparison comes in Enns’s dismissal of the German Protestant Kirchentag, one of the largest and most successful of the many new religious institutions established in Germany after World War II (p. 162). Much like later evangelical organizations, it represented a synthesis of local impulses for religious renewal and the influence of the larger Christian community. (Its founders were active leaders in the World Council of Churches, its initial meetings were funded to a significant extent by North American religious organizations, and its program consistently reflected more general ecumenical trends and concerns.) Enns is correct to note that the Kirchentag, especially from the mid-1950s onward, emphasized education, dialogue, and mobilization over altar-call evangelism. He is also correct that, for all its success, it failed to reverse Germany’s long-term, steady decline in Protestant church attendance. In many ways, however, this misses the point. The goal of the Kirchentag was not primarily to bring people into the churches, but rather to bring Christianity into the world. This goal, by its very definition, would seem to fall squarely within the remit of Christian missions.[7]

Indeed, from a comparative historical perspective, one of the most interesting—though underdeveloped—insights of Enns’s study is the observation that each of the groups examined defined Christian missions differently from the others. Ecumenical Protestants emphasized public faith (and, later, peace, reconciliation, and social justice); Mennonites bore Christian witness through an alternative lifestyle devoted to pacifism and service; Baptists emphasized low-church polity and anticommunism; and evangelical Protestants prioritized a personal conversion experience. These different forms of missions, in turn, reflected different understandings of the basic Christian message. Whether any one of these interpretations is a more or less genuine reflection of Christian faith than any other is ultimately a theological, rather than historical question. But a recognition of this basic diversity seems like a promising starting point for the academic study of missions in the context of today’s decentralized world Christianity.

Notes

[1]. In this review the English term “evangelical” will be used to refer to the Anglo-American evangelical tradition and the affiliated movement in Germany (Evangelikalismus). This should not be confused with the German term “evangelisch,” which is sometimes translated as evangelical, but which refers to Protestantism more generally.

[2]. See, for example, Peter Wensierski, “Aufschwung Jesu,” Der Spiegel, 18 (2008): 38-41; Felix Stephan, “Wir werden euch rocken!” Süddeutsche  Zeitung, February 28, 2012; and Odo Lambrecht and Christian Baars, Mission Gottesreich: Fundamentalistische Christen in Deutschland (Berlin: Links Verlag, 2009).

[3]. Hartmut Stratmann, Kein Anderes Evangelium. Geist und Geschichte der neuen Bekenntnisbewegung (Hamburg: Furche Verlag, 1970); Friedhelm Jung, Die deutsche evangelikale Bewegung. Grundlinien ihre Geschichte und Theologie (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1992); and Reinhard Scheerer, Bekennende Christen in den evangelischen Kirchen Deutschlands 1966-1991 (Frankfurt am Main: Haag & Herchen Verlag, 1997). Some “outsider” historians have also addressed the evangelical phenomenon, generally placing greater emphasis on its role as an opposition movement to broader social changes. See, for example, Siegfried Hermle, “Die Evangelikale als Gegenbewegung” in Umbrüche. Der deutsche Protestantismus und die soziale Bewegungen in den 1960er und 1970er Jahren, ed. Siegfried Hermle, Claudia Lepp, and Harry Oelke (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007).

[4]. Most comprehensively Martin Greschat in Die evangelische Christenheit und die deutsche Geschichte nach 1945. Weichenstellungen in der Nachkriegszeit (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2002).

[5]. Richard Pells, Not Like Us: How Europeans Have Loved, Hated, and Transformed American Culture Since World War II (New York: Basic Books, 1997).

[6]. For a more detailed analysis of these changes, see David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Missio (New York: Orbis Books, 1991).

[7]. For examples of this perspective, see World Council of Churches, The Church for Others and the Church for the World: A Quest for Structures for Missionary Congregations (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1968); and Dorothy Sölle, “Kirche ist auch ausserhalb der Kirche,” in Deutcher Evangelischer Kirchentag Köln 1965. Dokumente (Stuttgart: Kreuz Verlag, 1965): 295-305. It is worth noting that the mainline Protestant churches in Germany have more recently reprioritized evangelistic efforts, partly under the influence of the evangelical movement. See, for example, Kirchenamt der EKD, ed., Reden von Gott in der Welt. Der missionarische Auftrag der Kirche an der Schwelle zum 3. Jahrtausend (Frankfurt am Main: Gemeinschaftswerk der Evang. Publizistik, 2000).

Citation: Benjamin C. Pearson. Review of Enns, James C., Saving Germany: North American Protestants and Christian Mission to West Germany, 1945 -1974. H-German, H-Net Reviews. November, 2017.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=50367

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