The Little Church That Could

Prayer revitalizes a German church.

Andrew Mcchesney
The Little Church That Could

The only Seventh-day Adventist church on Germany’s largest island would have to close. Only six church members worshipped there on Sabbath: four elderly members of a single family, and two other older people. Conference leadership recommended selling the early-nineteenth-century building in the town of Bergen on Rügen island. 

“No, we want to keep the church,” the church’s head elder, Gunthardt Saupe, told them. “We don’t want to sell it.” 

With those words, the six church members began to pray earnestly. As they prayed, membership grew—and they also constructed a brand-new church building that serves as a center of influence to the community and is a witness of God’s incredible power in northern Germany. Today 25 church members plus their children and guests gather to praise God every Sabbath in the miraculous 730,000-euro (US$758,000) church building. 

“In the end, we have a new church building and no debt,” Gunthardt said in an interview in the new church building. “God confirmed that our church should stay open.” 

The Bergen Seventh-day Adventist Church was founded by seven members in 1940 during World War II. The church—located on a resort island with sandy beaches, historic towns, and a national park with stunning white chalk cliffs towering over the blue Baltic Sea—hit a peak of 33 members in the late 1950s. But it saw a sharp decline after Germany’s reunification in 1990. Elderly members died, and younger ones left the former East German island to seek better lives. By 1999, when conference leaders recommended closing the church, the island’s population had become largely secular. 

Gunthardt and his wife, Petra, joined her parents and the other two church members in praying for God to intervene. 

“Please bring someone new to the church,” Gunthardt prayed. 

Then an Adventist physician and his wife and daughter moved to the island and joined the church. The church’s membership grew to nine. 

Church members kept praying. 

Then a former church member recommitted his life to Jesus and rejoined the church. 

Church members kept praying. 

Change of Heart

By 2010 church membership had reached 16, and conference leaders changed their minds about closing the church. While membership remained low, they saw the church overflowing with vacationers, who flocked to the island in the summer. Some vacationers were Adventist, and their presence boosted Sabbath attendance to 30 to 50 people. With insufficient space in the church, people sat on the grass outside and listened to the sermon through open windows. 

The church members’ battle to save their church seemed to have been won. But another challenge emerged. A new building was desperately needed. The church’s small yellow building was more than 200 years old and in serious disrepair. The upstairs floor creaked and shifted when people gathered for Sabbath School, and a foul odor permeated the premises. 

Church members kept praying. 

In 2018 each of the seven families who comprised the church’s membership decided to pledge funds for a new building. Their pledged total of 136,000 euros (US$141,000) was far from enough for the project, but it encouraged them to keep praying. 

“God, would You please help us raise the rest of the money that we need?” Gunthardt prayed. 

Gunthardt, who had built several houses, designed a new church building that also would serve as a center of influence offering seminars during the week on such topics as forgiveness and coping with grief. 

Other money flowed in. Church members from across Germany contributed generously after hearing about the project at camp meeting. Companies and other organizations also donated. 

Unexpected Donation

A significant contribution came when Gunthardt unexpectedly met a state finance minister. Germany has 16 state finance ministers, one for each of its 16 federal states, and Gunthardt met one of them at a local business meeting. Gunthardt told him about the church after the meeting, and the minister promised to help. 

Gunthardt, however, didn’t wait for the minister to call back. During the next six months he called the minister’s office many times. 

“Please ask him to read the document and get in touch with me,” he asked the minister’s assistant. 

Finally the minister called back. He apologized for the delay and gave Gunthardt the phone number of a senior local politician who could help. 

Gunthardt called the politician and invited him to visit the church. During the visit the politician expressed delight with the proposal. 

“If your application is for less than 300,000 euros, I can give you the money right now,” he said. 

In Germany, politicians have the broad authority to distribute state funds to private social and religious causes. But the politician placed a condition on the donation. 

“As a Christian,” he said, “I want the new church building to be used not only for social purposes but also to spread the Word of God.” 

Church members were only too happy to agree. They had already planned to use the church as a center of influence. 

Politicians and community leaders joined church members at the grand opening of the new church building in 2021. Bergen mayor Anja Ratzke praised the church as “a great asset” to the community, according to an online video of her speech at the opening ceremony. In addition to seminars, church members pledged to open its premises to other religious organizations and to host funeral services at no cost. 

A New Beginning

God’s incredible answer to the faithful prayers of church members should encourage any church with declining membership, said Hugo Tornow, the church’s pastor during its struggling stage when it grew from six to 16 members. 

“We want to give hope to people who are disappointed that their church membership is declining,” he said. “We want to say that God can work.” 

Although the new church is open, church members are still praying. The church is located in a region of Germany that is recognized as one of the most secular and atheistic in the world. 

“Now we want to fill the church with life for the community,” said the church’s pastor, René Cornelius. 

But Gunthardt has no doubt that God hears and answers prayers. 

“We are waiting for more miracles,” he said. “The people here are not very religious. We are trying to connect with the community. Our message to all people is ‘You are loved by God.’ ” 

Watch a 10-minute video about Bergen church (in German):

Andrew Mcchesney