Last week a party of us went up to Berlin for the EBF Mission Conference 2016, “Welcoming the Stranger”. This conference, the theme of which was planned before the events of last summer, looked at Baptist responses to the refugee crisis across Europe. There have been several reports already about the conference, and I thought I would just add in a few reflections of my own.
Kingdom of God
One the things I loved about the conference was the way in which Baptists from many different cultural backgrounds and theological viewpoints rolled up their sleeves and got involved in “doing the stuff” of the Kingdom.
This looked different in different contexts: countries in the Balkan migration route were focused on immediate aid and handing out water bottles, Baptists from the UK were often involved across the border in Calais, and the focus for countries such as Sweden, Germany and Austria was often on longer term integration and advocacy work. But a golden thread holding the different responses together was a passion for the Kingdom of God and the dignity of individuals.
Time for reflection
One of the strengths of the conference was the intentional way that theological and practical reflection was built into the programme. It is often too easy for conferences to turn into a news report, with everyone bringing the view from their own situation, and then leaving without a fresher understanding. However, we were encouraged throughout to reflect, and the reflective aspects of the conference were skilfully and sensitively facilitated.
The reflection was also enhanced by the mix of people who were there: both Union leaders and ‘traditional’ pastors, but also a wealth experience from the grassroots level in areas of peacemaking, legal advocacy, aid relief, communication and organisation. I think that, had the latter group not been there (and there was of course significant overlap), the conference would have been much the poorer.
One sentence that caught a lot of imagination came from Pastor Dagmar Wegener from the Schöneberg Baptist Church in Berlin, who commented that they had experienced the refugee crisis as a refugee blessing.
I think that we experience this in our context in Austria, too – seeing what God is doing amongst refugee groups and how many are coming to faith is inspiring, and there is a feeling that we are living in the time of Acts (though of course brings all the practical problems that we see in Acts, too).
I think we will continue to see this blessing in the decades to come to, as the young new Christians of today (hopefully) mature and develop in the faith. It’s difficult to tell what European asylum policies are going to be, of course, but I long for the day when we see Afghans, Iranians and Syrians leading churches in Germany, Austria, Sweden and the UK and God using them for the re-awakening and re-evangelising of European churches.
This of course also prompts questions about how we as churches effectively disciple and mentor hundreds of young believers in ways that are culturally and linguistically appropriate – I think there is need for much more further reflection here.
I think this also makes obvious another reality: the future of churches is going to increasingly be international. This has been the case in a lot of city churches for decades, of course, but I think it that smaller town and village churches are also going to head in this direction. This might be a painful transition for many, but I think one that should be welcomed.
A nice part of these conferences is always the opportunity to catch up with old friends (and family members in this case), and also to meet new people. This conference was particularly nice for me, as I got to meet some people whom I had long known through Twitter but never met in the flesh.
Networking is really important on an issue like this, because refugees are inherently vulnerable to being moved around Europe as different countries squabble about how asylum law is to be implemented. Having a strong network of people who we can call is an effective way of maintaining advocacy and pastoral care for refugees in vulnerable situations (it can also be an exciting catalyst – our own refugee ministry originally started out of just such a phone call).