The roughly 2,000 people who are part of ICF Karlsruhe, a vibrant church in western Germany, know a lot about what happens in their pastors’ lives during the week. Lead Pastor Steffen Beck regularly tells stories from the local football club in which he’s involved. His wife, Lead Pastor Sibylle Beck, shares stories from the horseback-riding club where she volunteers as the captain.
The pastors, whether preaching from the pulpit or speaking informally with church leaders, are intentional about using hobbies and weekly interactions to find opportunities to bring faith into conversations. Their infectious example has inspired others to do likewise, resulting in a steady flow of newcomers to the church’s bridge events, groups and church services in five locations across Karlsruhe, a city of 300,000.
“My heart is to be with ‘normal’ people as often as I can,” Sibylle says. “I don’t preach to them, but I know they sense something different about me because so many meaningful conversations [happen].
“We simply encourage people to bring Jesus to where they are,” she summarizes. “That’s how the people of our church spread the love of God and kingdom culture across their families, neighborhoods, workplaces and dozens of local organizations.”
Vision From Crisis
Steffen was a youth pastor in an established church before he and Sibylle started ICF Karlsruhe. ICF stands for International Christian Fellowship, a church-planting movement that started in Switzerland and has spread to 13 countries. They attended a 1999 conference in Germany with teaching from Willow Creek Community Church. After hearing about churches that use contemporary music and life-related messages to reach the unchurched, Steffen and Sibylle rose to say yes to the closing challenge: “Who wants to make a difference for Jesus in Germany?” Soon about 30 people began meeting weekly in their living room to discuss the vision of a different kind of church, and to pray together.
ICF Karlsruhe didn’t launch until 2005, but during the buildup, the Becks experienced a marriage crisis. With help from a Christian friend, they renewed their marriage. “God cleaned us from the inside, and built a new foundation for our marriage,” Sibylle says.
Seeing God work so personally in their marriage triggered a desire to show others how much God wants to be involved in people’s deepest concerns.
“From the riding club and football club to church, we are open with our struggles. We serve a God who cares deeply about practical things like our marriages—and that’s big news to so many people we meet. We want people to feel welcome in an atmosphere where they can be real and bring their struggles,” Sibylle says.
So Different It’s Appealing
The church is so different that it draws people. The website breaks stereotypes of church. So does the church’s mission statement: “As a church, we are passionate about helping people become more like Jesus Christ, live fearlessly, and make positive changes in their communities.”
“We tell people that we want to be a church for people who don’t usually go to church,” says Manuel von Kahlden, the church’s executive pastor. “Before each service we explain what our visitors can expect, and even what worship is. It’s very brief, but it creates security. In sermons, we use language to explain the gospel simply and in a way that anyone can understand.”
The church works hard to help visitors connect. “Our Welcome Lounge is open after every service,” Manuel explains. “It’s a comfortably furnished area where people can come and ask their questions or just say hello and meet people.”
“We invite them to newcomer nights where many of our group leaders are introduced. The next step is to join a group for a short season of three to four months,” he says. These include courses like Alpha or Get Free; a service group such as backstage catering; a fellowship group such as a walking group, parent’s meeting, mountain bike group or a small home group. There are also classes such as “Listening for God’s Voice” on Saturdays.
“To train lay leaders, we just finished a discipleship course that ran for six months. About 100 key leaders attended,” adds Manuela Sauke, assistant to the Becks.
What Does Christmas Mean?
The church also creates bridge events, such as Experience Christmas in a New Way.
“Years ago, we wanted to reach people who were not aware of why we celebrate Christmas,” Manuela explains. “It started as a contemporary musical, a story that turned at the end to the true meaning of Christmas. We booked the local cinema, and every show got sold out.”
The event grew bigger each year. By 2018, 50,000 tickets were issued in one hour. Tickets were free, but people were given an opportunity to donate to charity during the evening.
“The event is not ‘evangelistic’ but rather a charity event that supports different local associations and also serves as a door opener to churches, [putting] the Christmas message in today’s language,” Sauke says. Some 2,000 volunteers are involved, many of them unchurched, who experience spirituality and the church’s culture backstage.
“ICF Karlsruhe’s vibrant, evangelical, biblical teaching is magnetic over there,” says Jim Tomberlin, a U.S. church consultant who grew up in Germany, pastored there for four years, and helped the church with its multisite model. “They have learned how to be a gospel-centered, outward-focused church in a post-Christian culture. They model a church that is so countercultural that it’s cool and edgy—which appeals to the totally unchurched generations growing up in Germany today.”
Pastor: Steffen Beck
Warren Bird, an Outreach magazine contributing editor, is the vice president of research at ECFA, former research director for Leadership Network and author of more than 30 books for church leaders.