German exchange student Niklas Brandt is studying abroad for a year much like his father did when he was a seminary student in the 1980s.
Brandt is a student in Concordia Seminary’s International Seminary Exchange Program. His father, Hinrich Brandt, is a pastor who spent a year studying at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Ind. The elder Brandt serves in the Altlutherische Parochie Greifswald, a congregation of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) in Greifswald, Germany, a partner church of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS).
This is the first time the younger Brandt has been to the United States.
“The mentality is different,” he said. “In Germany, we tend to be more reserved, closed. In America, people are more open.”
And another observation – cars, cars and more cars.
“Nearly every student in America seems to have a car,” he said with a laugh. “In Germany, students can use buses and trains for free.”
Brandt became interested in coming to Concordia Seminary in 2013 after attending a symposium at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Oberursel, Germany, where he is a student. Lectures were given by two Concordia Seminary faculty members including Dr. James W. Voelz, graduate professor of exegetical theology and the Dr. Jack Dean Kingsbury Professor of New Testament Theology, and Dr. Timothy Saleska, associate professor of exegetical theology and dean of ministerial formation.
“I was impressed with the literary exegetical approaches in comparison with the historical critical approaches,” he said. “We don’t have that in Germany.”
Brandt said that he also was impressed with the formation sessions during Orientation.
“That is something that I really missed in the German studies, where the studies are mostly focused on improving intellectual skills,” he said. “It would be very helpful to have formation sessions like this in our studies as well.”
Brandt has another personal connection to the Seminary. In 2015, Brandt met Chris Conkling, a Master of Divinity student now in his second year at Concordia Seminary, at a conference in Prague. Conkling said the conference was held in a monastery and he and Brandt struck up a conversation, talking about the state of the church and different forms of theology. The two became friends, getting together again in May 2016 during a return visit to the Czech Republic to see mutual friends and visit churches.
At the time, Conkling was studying abroad at Westfield House in Cambridge, England. When the two returned stateside to begin fall quarter classes, Conkling included Brandt in get-togethers at his parents’ home in St. Peters, Mo. Conkling’s mother, Brigitte, is German, which helped Brandt feel more at home.
“We have fun but our conversations always go back to theology,” Conkling said. Frequent topics of conversation? Evangelism, as in how it’s done, and issues facing the church such as declining attendance.
“He reveals to me a different context of ministry,” Conkling said. “He’s wise about what he does and will listen to other people. He’s genuine and tells you how things are.”
Brandt is soaking in as much as he can while in the United States.
“The experience of being in a whole different environment is great,” Brandt said. “In Germany, church life has lost a lot of things. It is a blessing to see how the church is going here in the United States. The LCMS is more widespread and organized, in comparison. I hope to take a lot of theology back with me.”
He sees great value in the “blue books” — the Concordia Commentary series by Concordia Publishing House — and wishes they were available in German so that his peers could avail themselves to the practical approach they present.
During the fall quarter, Brandt audited five classes and is taking three of his five winter quarter classes for credit. “The workload is much more here,” he said. “In Germany, there is more academic freedom and students have the opportunity to choose to study whatever they want. Here, it is very focused.”
When he becomes a pastor, Brandt plans to focus on catechesis.
“That is something I really want, to have a good catechesis basis for everyone, especially for young adults,” he said. He believes that “we lose them because we do not have enough faith-growing programs for them after confirmation.”
While his Seminary course load is more defined than what he had in Germany, he said that he sees the advantages of both. Outside of class, Brandt is getting the full Concordia Seminary experience. He plays on the soccer and volleyball teams, sings in the choir and lives in the dormitory with other unmarried seminarians.
Nils Niemeier, his next-door neighbor, said Brandt visits a different church each Sunday with other seminarians.
When Brandt went with Niemeier to Emmaus Lutheran Church in Dorsey, Ill., Niemeier said Brandt engaged many members of the church with his take on the state of the church in Germany.
“He said that because the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) suppressed the church, there is a clean slate for evangelism in East Germany and a great opportunity to share the Gospel,” Niemeier said. “It was great having Niklas along because he speaks German and many of the folks there remembered the German church services at Emmaus from when they were kids. It brought back a lot of memories for them and they learned a lot from him in turn. They love it when he visits.”
It was a positive experience for Brandt as well.
“I really feel like I’m a part of the community,” he said.