As friends and observers of the GRN will know, the Gospel Reformation Network is committed to the cultivation of healthy Reformed churches in the Presbyterian Church in America. Part of that commitment is expressed in the GRN’s seven Vision and Distinctives couplets, which include items such as a commitment to Presbyterian polity, Reformed worship, missional clarity, and church multiplication.
With those distinctives in mind, we’d like to offer a somewhat-different approach today as (rather than a straightforward article or syllogistically-principled argument) we offer an interview on the subject—not in video or audio format, but an old-style, written kind.
In order to commend to our readers the beauties and benefits of simple, biblical, Westminsterian, ordinary means of grace church planting, we thought we might interview a brother who has shepherded a congregation in recent years with precisely those kinds of commitments and has seen the Lord’s blessing upon the work.
Rev. Sean Morris and Rev. Nicholas Bullock are longtime friends since their seminary days, and both serve on the GRN’s General Council. Since 2019, Nick has served as the Pastor of Covenant Fellowship Church (PCA) in Stuttgart, Germany. CFC is a fruit of the labors of the Mission to the Military and Internationals (MMI), a ministry of the Southeast Alabama Presbytery. Sean has had the privilege of visiting this congregation and preaching at CFC both for Rev. Bullock’s installation and later for the ordination and installation of CFC’s first-ever ruling elders and deacons. In today’s interview, Sean interviews Nick regarding his experience over the last several years and how the Lord has blessed their labors at CFC.
When and how did Covenant Fellowship Church (CFC) get started?
Covenant Fellowship Church was begun on the last Lord’s Day in 2012 and planted out of the desire of a (very) small group of servicemembers then stationed in Stuttgart, and the vision of the presbytery commission for Ministry to the Military and Internationals of the Southeast Alabama Presbytery. Rev. Steven Walton, then a seminary student at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, was called to plant our church with only the call of God, his wife and two young sons, and a partially financially raised (and small) pastoral call package. The last Lord’s Day of 2012 was the first Sunday that he and his family were in Germany, and so the way he planted CFC was to do what every faithful church should do on the Lord’s Day: he preached the Word, prayed, sang and worshipped the Lord with just a few people in the living room of one of the founding members (the Waltons didn’t even have a home secured yet) and God was pleased to see this tiny church begin in Stuttgart, Germany.
What led you to take the call to CFC?
My Father is half-German. My grandfather was stationed in Germany with the United States Airforce in the 1950s, where he met my grandmother, who was from the village of Erding, Germany. We still have quite a number of family members in Germany, most of them living in Bavaria. While this undoubtedly contributed to my heart for Germany, it is not the reason I ended up here. It was the simple call of God, a burden He laid upon my heart for Covenant Fellowship Church and the city of Stuttgart, that led me to sell most of our belongings, and move to Germany with my wife and two small sons. God called, and I just went.
What does your typical Lord’s Day morning “demographic” look like?
In a word, diverse. From the beginning of Covenant Fellowship Church God has been pleased to grow our church as a multicultural body of Christians. Our membership and attendees are people from the United States, Germany, New Zealand, Singapore, India, Brazil, China, Korea, Australia, and in the past some from various African countries, Canada, Scotland, and other places as well. We are multi-cultural, multi-colored, and bi-lingual in every service. It’s beautiful.
What does your typical Lord’s Day worship service look like? Is there a particular “style” about it, and if so, how has that been received in an international context? Was it a challenge?
Our services are simple, biblical, and Reformed. In all honesty, our services look very much like most historic Presbyterian worship services. I like to describe our style of worship as “the most Bible that can be fit into an hour of worship.” We read Scripture, pray Scripture, sing Scripture (Psalms and Hymns), and preach Scripture. All of this is translated from English into German, we have bulletins in both English and German, and have creedal, and corporate readings in both German and English (and hopefully Portuguese and Korean in time) so that everyone can participate in the worship of the Triune God. There are occasionally challenges to finding a good cultural balance, but people come, and are fed in worship because Christians love the Bible, and in our worship the Bible structures everything that we do.
Has the church practiced evening worship since the start?
Yes, the faithful precedent of worship was set on that first Lord’s Day that the Walton family were in Stuttgart, and we’ve remained faithful to morning and evening worship every Lord’s Day since.
Do you have other discipleship or fellowship ministries outside the Lord’s Day?
We do. Every week we have 5 (sometimes 6 or 7) other opportunities for fellowship and discipleship during the week. Some are ladies’ studies, others home small groups, our weekly mid-week prayer meeting, and our recently started children’s and youth ministries.
You began pastoring this church in late 2019. Within a few months, the whole world shut down with the COVID-19 pandemic, around mid-March 2020. How was that for you and your people? How did you all weather it? Surely the fact that you were an international missionary added further complexity and frustration to the equation.
It was a challenge for sure. We had been in Germany for 3 months by the time Covid kicked off and had barely begun to figure out where to pay our bills, buy groceries, and how to say “Hi” to our neighbors. The thing that helped the most was that in all the chaos I had a very sure call to care for God’s people and to lead them with His Word. I mostly focused on principles of pastoral ministry, very stubbornly, and insisted on essential spiritual care for my people. I’m no scientist and couldn’t speak with any authority on the microbiological terrors of a world pandemic, but I do know the Word of God, and the demands that it places on ministers to shepherd God’s people and so I focused on that, preaching, praying, teaching, and serving the sacraments. There were times when I had to become faithfully innovative: online prayer meetings, recorded sermons, recorded pastoral story times for the kids of our church, phone calls, phone calls, and more phone calls! But in all of the crazy Covid times, we didn’t lose a single person in our church, and had only one family that took a cautious few months to return. At one point the government forbade us to sing (for nearly a year) so we read the Psalms responsively, loudly, and with worshipful passion and God blessed His word and our worship.
Church planting is never easy. But I’ve heard you say that, from the start, the commitments and principles were simple. Could you flesh out what you mean by that?
Totally, it’s not easy, not in any sense, but it is as simple as reading, preaching, praying, and singing the Word of God. Scripture translates to every culture and person and is the most essential gift to give because within it, Christ has revealed Himself and through its ministry gives Himself to His people. So, no, it’s not easy, but it is as simple as the Word of God is simple.
You’re pastoring a Presbyterian/Westminsterian Church in the land of historical German Reformed/Heidelberg Catechism Christianity. What’s that been like?
Germany is not only post-Reformation in its cultural and spiritual memory, but also largely post-Christian. Most people know of Luther, but few average Germans can tell you anything he or the Reformation taught, and very rarely have I ever met anyone who has even heard of Presbyterianism or the Westminster Confession. The focus is not on historical legacy but rather on the beating heart of Scripture expressed in the Westminster Standards and the teachings of Reformed Theology. I like to say that ministerially the Bible is what is heard with Westminster emphases and possibly a Scottish accent.
Tell us a little about Stuttgart. Would you say that your congregation offers a unique ministry in that city, with respect to the other church “options” that are out there?
Most American have little knowledge of Stuttgart, unless, of course, they are car enthusiasts. Stuttgart is the birthplace of the automobile and specifically Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. It is a city whose metropolitan region is home to 5.2 million persons. It is extremely diverse with people from various foreign countries living within it. Our church is unique in that we conduct bi-lingual services in English and German, and also that we are the only Reformed/Presbyterian church not only here but within a 1.5 hr. drive of the city. Also, we’re historically the first Reformed and Presbyterian church ever established here. In spiritual terms, we’re one of the few faithful churches in the city with our closest spiritual neighbors being two international Baptist churches.
What have been your biggest challenges?
Exhaustion. Church planting and pastoring in such a spiritually isolated setting means that there are very few days off, and even fewer opportunities for pulpit supply. Honestly, God has been so gracious to us that every challenge has been met with His sustaining grace.
What are some of the ways that your church is doing evangelism, or what strategies/approaches have you found to have been effective?
There are several ways our church does the work of evangelism. The first is through the clear preaching and teaching of the word of God.
Secondly, we encourage our members to be intentionally active in hosting people whom they have met, or work with for a meal in their homes alongside other members in our church where hospitality is shown, relationships can be established, and the Gospel shared meaningfully and personally. We are convinced that people are far more willing to hear the Gospel from people who have exhibited a heart for them personally, before they begin to speak into their lives. Also, we’ve seen that it makes it substantially easier for newcomers to feel comfortable attending church if there is someone they know and whom they can trust when they attend.
Thirdly, we have men in our church doing street evangelism weekly on Königstraße in downtown Stuttgart.
What are the biggest “draws” to your congregation? In other words, when you speak to new visitors and receive new members, what is it that they say appeals to them about CFC?
Most people come to us because they googled “Bible-believing church,” and so the great evangelist Google sends them to us. Seriously, most people aren’t looking for a Presbyterian church, they want the Bible and so they eventually land in our church.
What are your hopes and prayers for the future of CFC?
My prayer is that as my new Session and Diaconate grow that God will help us establish a German Presbyterian denomination with some sister churches across Germany. I also dream that our church will become a church-planting church and that we will be able to raise up our own men to plant in other cities across our country.
What’s something you’d like to leave with our readers or emphasize that we haven’t already covered?
Brothers, please don’t overcomplicate church planting or, for that matter, pastoral ministry. The best thing you can do for your people is simple: open God’s Word and show men, women, and children Jesus. Simply labor in pastoral ministry as a man chained to the Word of God and in service to Christ Jesus.