Sunday, July 15, 2012


Torgau--July 15

Caught the train from Heidelberg early on Sunday morning. Six-hour ride across very fertile, green German farm country.

Torgau was an important trading center from the early 12th century. It has narrow streets, ancient buildings and a really cool castle. The Reformation may have been born in Wittenberg but Torgau, as they say, became its “nursemaid”. Luther and Melanchthon came here to write and preach. Here Johann Walter with Luther introduced the practice of church congregation singing hymns—new Protestant German hymns.

Torgau is the place where the American and Russian armies first met during the Second World War. It also has a dark past—it was used as a prison center by the Wehrmacht, a Russian detention center just after the war, and an East German “re-education center for troubled and difficult children”.

Though a few of the state churches were allowed to continue to function, thoroughly communist East Germany (the GDR) closed almost all of the churches in the country. Many of the church buildings were converted to schools, museums, and storage facilities. In Torgau, the Catholic Church stayed open and the Luther Chapel in the castle stayed open but the rest were used for other purposes. The Johann Walter
Church was turned into a high school (we visited it in 1990.)

There was also at least one “secret” or underground church that remained alive.

About 20 years ago, I went with some friends from Los Alamos and some West German Christians to work with this little church that had been “underground” for all of its life.

This church congregation was not a state church. It was a “free church,” also called “Baptist”. Don’t confuse it with an “evangelical church” because the state church (typically some form of Protestant, usually Lutheran or the “united” brand we saw in Heidelberg) is called “evangelical” in Germany. Citizens pay taxes which are distributed to the state churches according to a legislated formula.

When the Berlin Wall came down and the GDR opened up, the Free Church stepped out of the shadows into the bright sunlight. It was now permitted to function openly, publically, without fear of persecution. Of course, it would not receive any support from the state—a true “Baptist” or “free church” would not accept any such thing anyway.

Way back then, we were asked to come and simply talk with the people about “how to do church.” They wanted to explore worship, education, youth and children’s ministries, evangelism and missions—all the stuff we sort of take for granted and even see as “routine”. For a little over a week, we met with these good folks, holding sessions with adults and church leaders in the morning; evangelistic worship services in the evening. None of them spoke English—they had grown up in East Germany where the foreign language taught in school was Russian. Fortunately, we had good interpreters.

A young girl, probably 9th grade, very energetic and vivacious, had been coming to the (sparsely attended) services in the evening. She came up to us after a couple of days and said, “Why don’t you come to our school and talk to the students? I will talk to my principle and get permission.”

The pastor was understandably very uncertain about this turn of events—it was a departure from the “plan” and he was not inclined to be very flexible. Furthermore, he did not want to do anything that would draw too much attention to the church.

You can see the conflict. This response is understandable from the perspective of someone who had worked so diligently to keep his church secret. It was a golden opportunity, however, from the standpoint of those who wanted to get out into the community.

As it turned out, we received enthusiastic permission to go to her school. Before the week was over, word was out that there were Americans in town and we were invited to all the high schools in town. We went to the English classes (English had just been added to the curriculum. Russian had been dropped! The English teachers were barely able to speak the language at all but they were all the schools had at the time.) They wanted us to come, speak English, and talk about America. We also had complete freedom to talk about what we were doing in town. The reaction from the students when we said we had come to “talk about Jesus” ranged from stark disbelief to utter bewilderment. We invited them to come to the evening services.

They started showing up. By the end of the week, over 100 teens were crowding into the little church. It was chaotic, crazy, and wonderful. It was overwhelming to the pastor and the church—they had no idea what to do with these kids! When we left, they were facing the problems of any growing church—space, leadership, programing . . . .

I have not forgotten that little church. Over the years I lost touch with the people with whom we established only brief relationships but I have often prayed for them and wondered how they are doing. I really looked forward to going back to Torgau and learning how things had developed. This trip provided a unique opportunity to do just that.

We searched all over the Internet for a website or information related to a “free church” or “baptist church” in Torgau. We investigated every possible Google suggestion. We took the train from Heidelberg to Torgau on Sunday, hoping we might even find this church during its Sunday evening gathering.

Sunday afternoon, we wandered to every possible location we could identify. Nothing.

On Monday morning, we went back by one hopeful location. Nope. Then we went to the “Tourist Information/City Center” (sort of a chamber of commerce)—not only did no one speak English, but they had no information at all of any such church. They did not have a church directory. We did not find anyone in Torgau who had any hint of such a church—we also did not find anyone who spoke English. Apparently, things have not changed much in this rural part of eastern Germany.

So, is the church still there? Did it move? Did it fail to make the adjustment to freedom and simply die? Was it there and just doing a lousy job of publicity?

So, what happened? Disappointed in finding no sign of the church, fearful that it was there and we just couldn’t locate it, set me to thinking.
Were the changes back in the early days of the end of the Cold War too much too soon for a fragile congregation? Was it simply overwhelmed by too many challenges and the inability to flex and move with the current?

The church had the potential for growth—it got a pretty good boost in the short time we were there—at least in our eyes. But maybe not in their eyes. Maybe it was just too much. Maybe the fear of “making waves” was still just too fresh.

That fear did not make sense to our American/Western sensitivities. We saw the opportunity and said, “Let’s go!”
They saw it and said, “Oh, no!”
I imagine it is hard to break old patterns of response.

Maybe they just did not have enough resources—not enough energy, volunteer time, money, or other churches which to partner. They really were pretty isolated. (I wonder if things might have been different if WRBC had committed to helping in some way for a period of time.) Made me wonder about short-term mission projects, church planting, and all the other things we think we are supposed to be doing.

Maybe the society was just too secularized. Under Russian and Communist anti-religious influence, a whole generation had grown up being taught that religion was for the weak and uneducated. I suspect that there are Christians in Torgau but I also believe they are swimming upstream against a deeply secular culture.

I remember the struggle these people faced 20 years ago: 60% unemployment, questions as to who owned the land, lack of capital for development, uncertainties about "re-unification" with West Germany. Maybe it had just been too much to try to live life and respond to all the needs they faced daily and at the same time seize the opportunities presented to them. Perhaps there was still too much confusion and lack of clarity as to how to be the church.

Whatever the case, there are some lessons to learn. There are significant reasons for our church and every church to sit up and pay attention. These warnings crossed my mind:
Pay attention, church: you live in enemy territory and the forces stacked against you are strong.
Pay attention, church: you can get overwhelmed and lose your bearings.
Pay attention, church: you can allow secular society to bury you.
Pay attention, church: don’t lose your sense of purpose.

One other thing: maybe that church actuallywas there somewhere. If so, they still had not figured out the importance of a public presence! So, another caveat: 
Pay attention, church: make sure people know you exist!      

Medieval towns all sort of start to look alike. I mean, who doesn't need a turret on your house?

Turret and tower on the city government building actually looks pretty cool.

I remembered this street, which goes straight to the castle, very clearly from when I was here 20 years ago. It is so typically 1500s.

The castle gate, from the bridge over the moat.

They still have bears in the moat. Cheaper and easier to maintain than water.

The doors into the castle keep.

A neo-gothic tower with spiral staircase inside the castle keep. Interestingly, the castle is today used for government offices. Through the arched door directly under this tower leads to the juvenile social services office!

Beautiful winding staircase in this tower..

Inside the castle grounds, the arched door off to the left is the one leading into the Luther Chapel.

October 5, 1544, Luther designs and builds this first Protestant chapel.

Inside Luther's chapel: it is simple yet lovely, designed and adorned much like the churches in which he had grown up.

His pulpit is not as high-minded as some we have seen. Many of the big churches have ornately carved wooden ones. His is covered with plaster casts of scenes from the Bible.

Another vantage of Luther's pulpit.

Out the back door of the castle, looking at the Elbe River.

A fine castle turret for watching up and down the river, looking for invaders (French, German, Russian--whatever.)

The Elbe River is wide, full, and calm here.

The monument, obviously put up during the Soviet era, here in East Germany, is all in Russian, giving glory to "our victorious Red Army and their heroic allies."

This plaque was added after the Wall came down. It was not part of the original memorial!

A distinctly Russian look to the memorial.

In this house Luther, Melanchthon, Jonas, and Bugenhagen wrote the Torgau articles of faith here in March, 1530.

This is stag and red cabbage! Yes, stag, as in "male deer of the European forest variety." Excellent.

Beef and red cabbage and boiled potatoes. Yummy.

At this fountain, 20 years ago, we did street witnessing and handing out of tracts, inviting people to the little Free Church. That was when a friend from Los Alamos who came on that trip said to me, "I didn't know you could do evangelism!" I think it was meant as a complement.

The Marktplatz in the setting sun.

You can see the castle tower from many vantage points around this little town.

"Do you think we need to add on to the house again?"

The pastor of the church, back then, lived in an apartment on this street. I stayed with him and his wife during the time we were here.

This resident, perched on a ledge of the castle wall overlooking the river,  seems nonplussed by all the history swirling around.


  1. That is a very interesting story. I'm sorry you were unable to find that church. Here's to hoping it's alive and growing somewhere! (and that they will work on their publicity...)

    The food is looking good. Any sauerkraut yet?

    Also, that Torgau resident is adorable. :)

  2. You know, I want to believe that church is somewhere, maybe moved, maybe took a different name, maybe merged with another church. Found a newspaper article about a "baptist" church in Torgau that was dated 2007. I have not translated it fully yet, but it may well have the answer.

    The red cabbage is a kind of kraut. It is not the sauerkraut I know from the US. This is sweeter and not very tangy (which suits me just fine!)

  3. My favourite way of eating sauerkraut is in a tomato-based sauce with sausage (preferably Mennonite farmer sausage). Just plain sauerkraut isn't anywhere near as good.