An act of faithfulness can change the world
The church is dead.” This is what people have often said as big churches sit
mostly empty, as numbers of worshippers decline, and as the church’s role in
the society seems to narrow. This has been particularly true of our American
view of the church in Europe: “Over there, the church is dead.”
When 10 metro area teenagers journeyed in July to join 10 German teens in
Leipzig as this year’s part of the Minneapolis Area Synod (ELCA) Companion
Synod Youth Exchange, there was an opportunity to learn about the current
role of the church in Germany. The group visited the downtown Leipzig
Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas Church), where Johann Sebastian Bach was once
cantor (music director), and learned of that congregation’s role in the fall of
the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall.
The Nikolaikirche building was built about 500 years ago, in Martin Luther’s
day, and holds about 2,000 people. But church attendance has declined in
this century, even more during the socialist regime after World War II. Sunday
attendance had declined to about 100.
In 1981, the Cold War heated up, and both the U.S. and Russia threatened to
install more nuclear missiles in West and East Germany respectively. A group
of youth came to the Nikolaikirche and asked if the church would allow them
to start a weekly worship service of prayers for peace.
The “Peace Prayers” generated some interest initially, with several hundred
people attending. But when the U.S. and Russia installed their missiles
anyway, people became discouraged, and attendance at the Peace Prayers
dwindled. Sometimes there were only five or six people present.
“The church is dead,” people said. Someone proposed that they discontinue
the Peace Prayers. But that small group had grown to value those prayers,
remembering, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I
among them.” So they kept meeting, and praying, and lighting candles, week
after week, year after year.
In 1989, widespread dissatisfaction with the East German government led to
various forms of protest, but protesting groups were not permitted to meet.
Several groups began to attend the Peace Prayers, where they could legally
gather. Attendance soared to 1,000, then 2,000, always lighting candles and
praying for a peaceful resolution to the conflicts in their country and around
In October, the government decided to suppress the prayers. On October 9,
they posted armed soldiers throughout the city; they stopped all car traffic
into the city and turned away suspected protestors; and they sent thousands
of Communist Party members in mid-afternoon to fill the pews of the
Nikolaikirche, so that others would not be able to get in.
By evening, worshippers filled the aisles and the large courtyard outside the
church. As usual, they lit candles and prayed for peace. Then an impromptu
procession formed, out of the church and through downtown Leipzig, which
was thronged with hundreds of thousands of marchers and thousands of
armed military personnel.
No shots were fired. The Socialist government had lost its power to suppress
its people. One month later, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall was
hammered to pieces. The path to German unification was accomplished,
miraculously, without bloodshed.
Many of the people in that Leipzig procession in 1989 were not Christians.
But the Christians, gathering to pray for peace week after week, provided a
means and a model for nonviolent protest. And through their leadership, a
nation found a way to bring desired changes without killing.
Scholars have attempted to analyze why the soldiers didn’t shoot, why
violence did not break out. They have come up with no better answer than
that of Superintendent (Bishop) Martin Henker, who told us simply, “It was a
miracle of God.”
People keep coming to the Nikolaikirche on Monday evenings to pray for
peace. Usually, there are about 30 worshippers present. That is a small
group in such a big building. But that does not mean that the church is dead.
Morris Wee is pastor at Advent Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Maple Grove,
Minnesota. He participated in the Minneapolis Area Synod youth exchange to
its partner synod in Leipzig, Germany.
2008 Leipzig-Minneapolis youth exchange participants:
* Mackenzie Branch; Advent, Maple Grove
* Haeley Hendrickson; Advent, Maple Grove
* Luke Carlson; Trinity, Long Lake
* Jared Hansen; Community of the Cross, Bloomington
* Olaf Carlson-Wee; Christ Church, Minneapolis
* Elyse Provo; Family of Christ, Chanhassen
* Andrew Eggersgluss; Trinity, Long Lake
* Heather Walton; Our Father’s, Rockford
* Alyssa Hansen; Community of the Cross, Bloomington
* Kat Weisberg; Shepherd of the Lake, Prior Lake
* Ms. Julie Mattson; Our Saviour’s, Minneapolis
* Pastor Morris Wee; Advent, Maple Grove
* Ms. Jo Mueller; Family of Christ, Chanhassen