Martin Buehlmann & The Vineyard In Germany-Austria-Switzerland
In this interview, Martin Buehlmann shares the beginnings of the Vineyard in the Germanic nations and his hopes for the Vineyard global family's future. Martin and his wife Georgia presently lead the Berlin Vineyard and serve as National Directors for the Vineyard in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.
Extending the Kingdom of God through church planting and missional living.
VUSA: Let’s start with your story and how the Vineyard got started in the Germanic nations.
Martin Buehlmann: Wow, how much time do you have? I would like to start with Adam and Eve … no. I was born and raised in a Christian family. I always believed there was a God and that Jesus was a good person. I couldn’t figure out what this man that lived 2,000 years ago had to do with me today.
I met my wife when I was 18 and she was 17. She got pregnant a few months later, and we got married and had our first son when I was 19. She was 18. I loved her, loved our son, but still, as a 19-year-old it was a challenge: What was life about? Was it over? I had reproduced myself; what else was there to do?
So I became a seeker, seeking something I could live and die for. I went to a church and was disappointed. My wife had grown up in an evangelical Pentecostal church and was deeply disappointed with Christians that don’t “walk the talk.” She had turned away from the faith and wanted to make sure that I didn’t become a Christian. So she took me to that church!
But there was a postman that took care of me. I remember to this day. After work one day – I worked at a bank – he invited me to his house. And it was very strange. He kneeled down, and he invited me to kneel down. This was very strange. I was not a Christian. But the moment he started praying, I just knew. The room was filled with God’s presence, and I just knew that Jesus was alive.
I started reading the Bible. I started sharing the gospel. I read and read, and for me, it was a manual for how to live life. I didn’t have any models or examples other than the gospels.
I started preaching in the streets, started witnessing in the bank. Out of 17 employees, 11 became Christians in a year. I didn’t realize I had a calling or something. The only thing on my heart was the pursuit of God, to see my life filled with Christ’s presence.
I was leading a youth group that grew from 20 to 70 youth within a year, which in our part of the world was unbelievable. I then met a guy from India that was 28 years old when I was 20 years old. He felt like inviting us to India to minister. So we left our home, left our jobs, took our two kids. Georgia had become a Christian by that time too.
We went to India for six months, and it was the most unbelievable divine encounter. I saw miracles of healing and the release of God’s power. Since I didn’t have any Bible school training or theological formation, I just listened to tapes. And then I repeated the messages that I heard on the tapes.
Sometimes I even repeated the prayers on the tapes. One night, as we were traveling from Calcutta, we were staying overnight on a cot in the street. I felt like the Lord spoke to me and said to me, “Go home, and you’ll be sending out thousands of missionaries.” I told my Indian friend in the morning, and as a result of that little divine encounter, this little church of about a hundred people sent us out. They gave us $2,000, which was a fortune for them – they were a poor church. We were sent out as Indian missionaries. Indigenous Swissman missionaries sent out by an Indian church!
I came back, had a good job offer, went to pray, and heard the Lord say to wait. So I prayed a lot, sought God for the future, and then received invitations to preach. Having in my heart that I wanted to church-plant, I started thinking where I could learn how to do that, because I had not seen a church plant in Switzerland. This was about 1978-1979. I remembered having met some Americans in India, and somehow we were able to go the United States to learn about church planting.
We met with a man named Todd Burke. He had been a missionary to Cambodia and had experienced revival there. He became an important mentor for us to plant a church in Bern in 1981. It was this mentor who one day in 1982 – when I met him in Oklahoma City, of all places – said that there was a man that the world would hear whose name was John Wimber. And so we went to California. Todd bought me a plane ticket.
And everything that Wimber said – I had a lot of tapes of him now – it cut my heart. It was like he was able to say things that were deep down in my heart that I didn’t know were there.
During that time, a Protestant pastor had approached me back in Bern and had noticed our little community of 20 or so people. He had a heart for the renewal of the Protestant community. So he joined us. What I didn’t know was that he was the leader of the Protestant charismatic renewal in Switzerland. He was part of the executive board with people like Michael Harper and David Harper and others. They were looking for young leaders.
I happened to be young! So they picked me. And I became part of the executive board of the ECC, the European Charismatic Consultation.
As time went by, we went to conferences with John Wimber in England, and we traveled to Anaheim. He became a wonderful spiritual mentor and dear friend in my life. I translated his speaking into German at conferences in England and Germany. We grew together. We did a conference in Switzerland. We did five or six conferences after that, and I started organizing them.
In 1989, I felt in the Spirit to lay everything I had down at his feet. He accepted us as a Vineyard, and in 1992 we officially changed our name. At that point, John asked me to take leadership of the general area, the country I was in and the countries around it.The Vineyard has become my family. It’s not a denomination. it’s not a church. It’s family. It’s a… Click To Tweet
I’m not saying that we’re necessarily any better than anyone else, but we’re family. There are some special things that God has given us as a tribe, a family, that he wants us to share with the world that doesn’t know Christ. An authentic type of Christianity, for real people. It doesn’t mean we’re the best or the strongest – just ourselves, depending on the King.
There had been one or two plants in Germany before. One was in Bavaria. Also Bert Waggoner and his group planted a church in Munich as Pentecostals early on, which became a Vineyard later.
When we came in in 1989, I think we were the only ones, but by 1992 or 1993 there were others. What we were doing was modeling how to follow Christ more than how to model the church. Equipping the saints with the kingdom of God in its broadness. Putting feet on some great thoughts, building churches on relationships instead of programs. Church not for the poor but with the poor.
We developed values that translated to the Germanic world. It wasn’t difficult for those who didn’t already believe in Christ. It was harder for existing churches, especially as it came to things of the Spirit, and we had experienced some radical things early on with healings and prophetic renewal. We became a renewal agent for many. People joined us for different stages for different reasons.
Today the Vineyard in Germany has 80-90 churches and roughly a dozen migration churches – African French-speaking churches that we’ve planted. We have quite a large number of Vineyards outside Germany-Austria-Switzerland, and we’re working strongly into French-speaking Africa with former refugees that hope to return to their countries. We’re learning here in Germany-Austria-Switzerland what it means to express Christ to a society that is post-Christian but that is hungry for authenticity, for a lifestyle of Christianity.
What a great story! As we prepare to gather this July as a global family, what are some of your hopes for what could come out of the conference for the VineyardUSA and the Vineyard global family?
My first thought about the conference is not about what the world can contribute to the U.S. The foremost thing I see is celebrating family – to see how diverse we are, and yet there is unity through that diversity. There is no unity where there is no diversity, because otherwise it would be uniformity.
The diversity of the expression of Vineyard values in different parts of the world and different ethnic groups is just awesome. It is a revelation of the goodness of God and the greatness of family – a family that in fact has a lot of weaknesses, but we don’t focus on those. We focus on unity and togetherness.
As I’ve experienced many times, no matter what country you go to, if you end up in a Vineyard, it smells Vineyard. And something happens in your heart. You just know that the person that you meet, whether a leader or not, has something to do with you. It’s family. You can’t withdraw.
When it comes to what can we learn, I wouldn’t presume to say what the Americans can learn, but more, “What can we all learn?” I think as long as we’re able to open ourselves up for the perspective of another person or another country, it makes us rich. I hope to walk away from the conference being a richer person.
Maybe add that what we are trying to learn here is how to have church. But “church planting” is kind of an overused term. We are in danger of seeing only one or two models, but society is changing so rapidly. People, especially in Germany and Austria, don’t have any biblical or Christian background. It’s a society that is entirely different. We have to find new ways for how church expresses life.
We learn that “belong” comes before “believe.” We learn that we can even include people who are on their way to the Lord in our ministry. Even non-Christians can pray for the sick. And I don’t want to provoke, but we need to learn these things. What I feel is that we still have room to grow in understanding how to plant, how to lead, and how to develop churches.
Most of the time, when I look at older leaders in the European scene – I’ll be 60 by the time I’m with you in Ohio – they plant the church and then stay until retirement. The biggest asset we have is the group of older leaders that have had their successes and defeats, have had a lot of experience. We need those people to start to experiment with how we can develop churches that are able to develop younger leaders for the next generation. That’s my heart. And I have a lot of questions. Probably more questions than answers.
In Berlin, we’re planting. And I’m learning how to include the next generation. And I’ve heard so many negative stereotypes about the generation – Generation Y or whatever you want to call it – about how they can’t commit; they’re non-committal.
I decided a few years ago I wouldn’t focus on that negative but the positive and help to develop them on their strengths. In Berlin, we’re trying to plant 100 churches within the city that are all different expression of one church, Vineyard Berlin. We have a start: three churches, five projects. But it’s strictly built on multiplication of leadership, trust, encouragement, and a focus on who we are. This is aimed at every part of society in Berlin.
I’m learning a lot about people at the moment, about what a spiritual father can and can’t do. I’m in a learning curve right now.
If I could contribute something to my fellow laborers – many of them have been much more successful in life in some ways – it would be my desire to be an inspiration to somebody asking similar questions.
It seems like some of the work you’re doing in post-Christian Europe is almost a laboratory for the U.S. and where our culture may be in the next several years. We certainly aren’t becoming “more” Christian, and secularization is a reality that we’re experiencing. What do you dream for for the global Vineyard family for the next 10 or 20 years?
20 years might be a bit much for me. In the coming five years, which is more tangible to me, we will release five to eight nations to have their own movements.The outward face of the Vineyard will become less Western, or Caucasian, or Anglo-Saxon. It will be… Click To Tweet
When I say “more colorful,” I also mean the challenges of seeing other cultures not as recipients of what we have to give, but as those that make us the recipients of what they have to offer in terms of theology and evangelism and developing churches. I’m excited about this. There are going to be some dramatic changes in the Vineyard body.
The second thing I expect is church multiplication. How I’ll know if we’ve done a good job is when we plant churches that plant churches – to the third and fourth generations.
The same is true for movements in a broader sense. To see the Kenyan movement give birth to the movement in Uganda. And it will be beyond our Caucasian influence. Trusting those groups to embrace the values and translate them into their societies. That can happen in the next five or ten years.
And I think, “How fun it will be to watch this become an Asian movement, an African movement!” Not a Western movement, but movements born out of other movements. If that happens, I can see it just spreading like wildfire.
Globally, I think we’re still in a formative stage. I believe still that we haven’t seen where God is taking this, but also that it won’t be us that see it taken to the outermost parts of the world. It will be our spiritual children and grandchildren who will do a better job.
In terms of practical approaches, I think what we need to concentrate on is conflict resolution. The moment you work cross-culturally, you get into unexpected relational and philosophical challenges. I don’t think there are any easy answers on this, because it will depend on our readiness to maintain tender hearts, to stay teachable no matter how successful we’ve been, and to stay broken before the Lord and accept our younger brother to become our teacher. This will be the probably be the real proof of the maturity of the Vineyard Movement.