CEO's Rush to Spread the Gospel

Bill Sundstrom

German autobahns often have no speed limit, and Berlin businessman Wilfried Franz took full advantage, pushing the throttle to 150 mph.

The sleek Mercedes flashed down the road, a silver torpedo shrugging off the wind and rain. Inside the cockpit, Wilfried talked enthusiastically to Cru staff member Norm Patterson about how they could tell more people about Jesus.

Sue Patterson sat in back, white-knuckled, watching the scenery blur. "It was sweet to see the two men in front doing their male thing," says Sue, "talking strategy and enjoying the fast car. But there's a windstorm, I feel the car being tugged sideways, and my practical side says, 'Don't we have a problem here?'"

No problem, Sue. The car could handle it, and Wilfried, 51, had plenty of driving experience. But even the most powerful products of German engineering need a tune-up now and then for peak performance. Likewise with people. Sue and Norm, who took early retirement from his dental practice, provide a spiritual tune-up for Wilfried and Claudia Franz.

The Franzes have long been serving God. Claudia first learned ministry skills through Cru's university work. Back in the 1970s she attended a Christian group led by Wilfried's older sister, and she's been leading Bible studies ever since.

Wilfried, meanwhile, had been carving a career out of toys. It all began with Poker Bingo, a game he designed and marketed. Willing to take risks (as a boy he admired Christopher Columbus), Wilfried parlayed the profits into a chain of 34 toy stores called Spiele Max (Toy Max). He devoted 100 hours a week to building his business.

One day, a friend invited him to a Christian meeting to hear an Austrian CEO speak; curious about what the renowned leader might say, Wilfried agreed to come. Amazed that a top businessman would talk openly of his faith in God, Wilfried began studying the Bible and eventually trusted Christ as his Savior.

Today this optimistic "missionary entrepreneur," as Wilfried calls himself, takes every opportunity to tell people about his faith. He even lists 1 Timothy 4:10 on his business card, a rare demonstration in German business circles.

When asked about it, over cappuccino at a sidewalk café by the Brandenburg Gate, he digs a small brown New Testament out of his briefcase and explains the verse. Then he quotes Martin Luther, translating the German as "Work as if prayer held no value, and pray as if work held no value."

"Not everyone understands him," says Dagmar Linck, human-resources director at Spiele Max. "We have a lot of employees from East Germany, and they think he is talking to a ghost. But they still like him and respect him."

Wilfried always carries evangelistic material to give to people he meets. It could be a New Testament, a book or an invitation to Gesprächs Forum (Conversation Forum). Nonbelievers attending the Forum receive a good dinner, hear a thought-provoking message and discuss the ideas presented. Wilfried heads up the Berlin chapter of this Christian businessmen's organization, mentoring local leaders through a Bible study at his home.

Wilfried's aggressive streak keeps him going when people show little interest, or when it's hard to find new people to invite to the Forums, but discouragement does creep in at times. "Nearly every year I wonder if I should give up the ministry," he admits. It helps to have people like Norm and Sue cheering him on.

Three years ago, Norm, then 59, was living in Colorado. At a fund-raising event for Cru, he met Markku Happonen, director of Cru in Western Europe. Markku learned that Norm had served in Germany as a military dentist during the Vietnam War. "Why not come back?" asked Markku.

Norm and Sue certainly had the background. They had spent 13 years with Cru in Africa, reaching out to leaders of society and raising three kids.

But that was then; this was now. Friends advised them not to go, pointing out that Germans were unresponsive to the gospel, and that it would be hard to learn a new language at their age. Nonetheless, the Pattersons sold their succesful dental practice and their new home, and moved overseas.

"The first time around," says Sue, "Cru did a wonderful job of equipping us and giving us a vision for ministry. This time it is not about learning what to do, but about training German couples. One of Norm's greatest gifts is to teach and train on a one-to-one basis."

The Pattersons moved to Berlin in early September 2001.

Twelve days later, Wilfried chartered a luxury yacht and took them for a four-day cruise in the Lake District, north of Berlin. They visited picturesque villages, raced go-karts ("Norm lost," declares Wilfried, shooting a teasing glance at his friend. "I let him win," retorts Norm with a chuckle.) and talked of their passion for helping reach men for Christ. "Those days knit our hearts together," concludes Wilfried.

The two couples have much in common, from successful ministries to successful businesses. The wives could relate as well, what with husbands working long hours and the challenges of raising teenagers. Wilfried and Claudia found Norm and Sue to be kindred spirits, a cultured couple 10 years farther down the road in life experience.

The tune-up was ready to go.

"Norm and Sue have an authenticity," Wilfried explains earnestly. "It's impressive how they can win people's hearts."

He invited Norm and Sue to help with the Gesprächs Forum, and even encouraged his friend to train the leaders. "As Americans," says Wilfried, "Sue and Norm can say things that I as a German cannot say."

For example, Norm tells about the time he trained 20 or so Forum table hosts how to better interact with nonbelievers. He asked them to prepare a personal testimony, and he expected them to have it ready the following week.

"No way I could have asked that as a German!" Wilfried breaks in. "Not and gotten a response." In the German culture, it would have been considered too pushy.

Norm not only got a response, but people applied the lesson. "This really works!" said Mr. Petzold, a former opera conductor who became a Christian at one of Wilfried's Life and Belief seminars (Forum follow-up meetings).

"The Pattersons are important because they have a proven record," says Mathius Ploner, a doctor whom Norm also mentors, and whose wife, Sieglinde, is mentored by Sue. "To work with professionals, we need people who have proven lives as Christians in the workplace."

Norm and Sue have helped the Franzes personally too. "Early in my ministry I spoke too much about my own experiences with God," admits Wilfried ruefully. "Now I've learned to ask good questions-Norm is great at this. I've learned a lot from him in a short time."

Shortly after arriving, Sue helped Claudia put together an evangelistic Christmas coffee, and as a result, several women joined a Bible study. "You are such an answer to prayer," Claudia told Sue several months later. "I've been praying for someone to mentor me and be my friend."

Twice a month Claudia meets with a group of women whom Sue mentors. They meet in the Pattersons' apartment, an elegant, old Berlin home trimmed in soft shades of green.

During the long, dark winters, Sue sets out candles and flowers, turning their house into a warm, inviting garden. "My home is a safe place, an oasis," says Sue. "This is a happy time in my life. I can't be with my kids and grandkids, but this is the next best thing."

One advantage of working with professionals is that most speak English. Learning German has been harder than Norm and Sue expected, yet the Pattersons keep plugging away at it. "It is possible," says Norm. "If I can learn Bible verses, people's names and so on, I can learn a language. It's an attitude thing."

Norm and Sue will have plenty of time for practice. They made a 10-year commitment to Berlin, going so far as to buy an apartment, just to communicate that they mean to stay. "It takes a long time to build deep relationships," says Norm, "and ministry flows from those relationships."

That's what was going on that morning on the autobahn-relationship-building. After a while, Wilfried noticed Sue's discomfort.

 "Are you still with us, Sue?" he said with a grin. "We haven't left you behind, have we?"

"I'm still here," Sue said.

And she and Norm expect to be here for years to come, too, going 150 mph in ministry and providing spiritual tuneups for folks like the Franzes. As they do, outreach to business and professional leaders in Berlin can't help but accelerate.

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