A Tale of Relationships, Traditions, and German Pubs

This article is by Andy Jansen, Content Manager

I had the recent pleasure of interviewing and hearing a fascinating story from Bob Carlton (@biohzrd4u). Bob was saved in his twenties and dove into discipleship at a church with a Willow Creek DNA that was all about reaching the lost. After actually serving on staff at Willow Creek, he was sent to help plant a church in Austin, TX. It was from that point that Bob knew he was called to be a serial church planter. Since then he has moved various places, serving in ministry positions with the aim of creating good systems for sending. Bob enjoys thinking of strategies to reach lost people and make disciples, so much so that his friends started calling him an “apostolic pragmatist.”

The Pub Story

While in Austin, Bob met his wife, a German named Kristina, and they married in 2002. For the next few years, Bob and Kristina started traveling to Germany in the spring to visit her friends and family. Around 2007, Kristina began praying about reconnecting with old high school friends. Emails were exchanged, and they decided to all get together at a local pub and have a party the next time they visited. One of their friends helping to organize suggested a particular pub. “She wanted us to meet Manni ‘the laughing bartender’ even though he didn’t laugh. She said, ‘He’s a mean old crotchety bartender, but you’ll love him.’”

Bob described to me how pubs are an institution and a family environment in Germany. The bartender works in his pub, lives there, and holds events there. Germans, he said, are about three generations removed from the church, and they don’t typically have spiritual conversations. “The closest thing to a pastor there would be Manni. It was his place, his environment, and he brought everyone together.”

When they gathered at the pub, God opened a door through conversation. “We were just being intentional to get to know each other and build relationships, but by the end of the night we were having spiritual conversations.” At first being American and a pastor was perhaps a novelty, but not necessarily endearing. “They assumed I was a holier-than-thou type of Christian. But, you know, I was willing to eat their raw sausage without worrying that it might kill me.”

As the night wore on, even Manni left his bar and joined in the conversation. It was very emotional for Bob and Kristina just to see Germans open up spiritually. They had been praying for this.  

Saying Yes to Opportunities

The next day they had a German celebration equivalent to Father’s Day. “Manni, a man I had just met, invited me as his guest for a celebration that men normally take their sons to! Now – you have to be careful with this – whenever you receive an invitation to build relationships, as long as it’s not sin, the answer is: yes.

“When I went with Manni for his father-son celebration, I suddenly realized I was an American in a huge tent filled with drunken German men. A big ripped guy walked right up and thought it was fun to punch me in the chest.”

For Bob, however, the uncomfortable messiness proved to be worth the relationships it cemented. “They saw that I was interested in them and their history – I gave them a different impression of what they thought an American was like. If I had said it was too unfamiliar or that I couldn’t speak German well – if I had talked myself out of that, I would have missed out on so much.

“My wife says yes all the time. She gets pulled into crazy, messy things sometimes. But people realize we are genuine and safe to talk to, so they’re willing to get to know us, like Manni was. I learned that when you receive an invitation to build relationships, make sure you go. My wife is the real hero. She’s the one who opened the relationships. We did all the pub stuff together.”

Time and Distance

After an incredible visit, the new group of friends wanted to keep talking about God. Yet it didn’t exactly erupt into a church planting movement. “We tried several times to do the Skype thing, and it just wasn’t happening. We would come back and recreate these moments whenever we were there, but it wouldn’t stick when we were gone. I would love to say that, yes, there was this pub church born and hundreds of people came to Christ. Unfortunately, that isn’t the story.

“Everything came crashing down when Manni announced he had an aggressive cancer. It brought everyone together in one sense. He died several years ago, and now his wife and daughter run the pub. Now when we go back we still meet and have fun, and I impersonate Manni.”

Bob’s story made me wonder if all our modern technology – airplanes and the ease of travel, or the internet and speed of communication – what if all these things make it deceptively easy to remove ourselves from our historical situation in time and space? Perhaps we believe if we will it strongly enough, we have the power to transcend our individual finitude. Then Bob told me about another German tradition that taught him to plant his feet firmly in the earth.

A couple of the times Bob and Kristina visited Germany was during Christmas time. They went when a tradition called Grenzgang is celebrated where groups of about ten people walk from village to village between pubs for three days. The tradition dates back to when land surveyors walked between towns to determine taxes. “It’s a big deal in this community and a good excuse for Germans to drink beer.”

But it was also more than that. “The pub you end up in is supposed to be in your home town. I got in a conversation with an older guy in one of these groups. He was pointing at a barn and talking about the part that he and his grandfather had built. The oldest part of this barn was older than our country.

“He asked me as an American how many places I had lived, and when I told him he was mad. He was mad that I didn’t live in the house that my great grandfather had built. It was a powerful moment in my life when I learned about roots and heritage from an old guy talking about a barn. Every time we go there there’s something like that that God shows us.”

Being an Intentional Traveler

Talking to Bob highlighted just one example of how you can be involved in missions even if you aren’t a traditional missionary. “We go to Germany for vacations, but we also know that when we go there, we’re on mission there. We have friends there now, and we still see it as a mission field. We could see ourselves moving there when we retire to see if a network of pub churches could start. But it cannot hold together from afar. Still the soil is being tilled, and seeds of the gospel are planted. We are to the point that when our friends come to the States on vacation, they come and stay with us.

“God has called us to be intentional in every single relationship we have. We don’t always have an agenda other than to be Jesus with skin on, whether we’re in a grocery store or a pub. Sometimes we do a good job and sometimes we do not. But when we are intentional and prayerful, and we step out with a bold faith, God does crazy stuff.”

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash.