Nikolaikirche, Leipzig (Exterior)

St Nicholas, Leipzig, Germany


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Nicholas
Location: Leipzig, Germany
Date of visit: Monday, 10 January 2011, 5:00pm

The building

The Nikolaikirche is the largest church in Leipzig, founded in about 1165, situated at the intersection of two major trade routes. Dedicated to Nicholas, the patron saint of merchants, it is located in the heart of the city centre. Originally built in a Romanesque style, in the early 16th century it was restructured into a Gothic hall church. In Bach's day it was baroque. Rich classical ornamental decoration was added to the ceiling, the galleries, the pulpit and the pews in the 18th century. The balconies and pews are white, which is the dominant colour. The columns resemble palm trees, reminders of Christ's triumphant entry into Jerusalem as Messiah. At the base of the columns are depictions of wreaths (ancient symbols of victory), and the columns lead to the ceiling, where a representation of paradise is displayed. The late Romanesque wooden crucifix in the sanctuary is the oldest work of art in Leipzig.

The church

When Luther brought the Reformation to Leipzig in 1539, Nikolaikirche immediately became a Lutheran church. JS Bach served regularly here as well as at Thomaskirche. Nikolaikirche is also host to the Christian community of the University of Leipzig, whose church was senselessly demolished in 1968 by the communist regime. But what really makes this church extraordinarily special were the "prayers for peace" that helped initiate the peaceful revolution that brought down the Iron Curtain. Since 1982 there had been prayers for peace every Monday at 5.00pm. In 1988 these services became a focal point for the dissent and frustration of those suffering under the oppression of the East German regime. For many people who had been raised as atheists, the prayer services offered their first direct and lively encounter with the Bible and with prayer. In 1989 there was an escalation of tension. The police, in a futile attempt to stem the tide, arrested or detained participants in the prayer-for-peace services. On 9 October 1989, 70,000 people from around the country gathered in Leipzig for prayer. Nikolaikirche was filled to overflowing and other inner-city churches opened their doors as well. At the end of the prayer-for-peace services, people leaving the churches were welcomed by 10,000 waiting outside with candles in their hands. Jesus' spirit of non-violence seized the masses. Troops, militia and the police were drawn in, became engaged in conversations, and withdrew. A high government official stated: "We were prepared for everything except for candles and prayers." This evening turned out to be a decisive turning point. Eleven days later the head of government, Erich Honecker, was forced to resign. On 9 November the border to the West was opened. A year later Germany was reunited. The Monday prayer services at 5.00pm continue to this day, focusing on new themes, such as unemployment.

The neighborhood

Nikolaikirche is in the heart of the inner city in a pedestrian zone. It is a five-minute walk to the main train station, a ten-minute walk to the renowned Thomaskirche (St Thomas), and a five-minute walk to the place where the university church stood and where a new complex is being built that will contain a new chapel.

The cast

This service was the start of an International Week of Prayer 2011, involving various denominations meeting daily in prayer at different churches and centres. The Revd Bernhard Stief of St Nicholas greeted the congregation, led prayer, and gave the blessing. The Revd Martin Reakes-Williams, an Anglican chaplain serving at the English church in Leipzig, led the service and filled in as preacher, as the scheduled preacher could not participate due to illness. There were other participants and a keyboard player but they were not introduced or listed.

What was the name of the service?

Prayer for Peace

How full was the building?

About 50, in a church that can hold 2,000.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Someone was handing out hymn books but did not really greet visitors.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes. The white pews also looked inviting and cheerful.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

There was some sporadic and lively conversation going on, as some of the participants seemed to know one another well. Otherwise, the conversations were subdued.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"The peace of the Lord be with all."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Singt von Hoffnung: Neue Lieder für die Gemeinde (Sing of Hope: New Songs for the Congregation).

What musical instruments were played?

Electric keyboard.

Did anything distract you?

It was not easy to find a distraction because the congregation participated with concentration and discipline. The only distraction came from my own thoughts: trying to visualise the situation in this church on 9 October 1989, filled with over 2,000 people tense with anxiety as to what would happen on the streets of Leipzig, wondering whether they would be arrested or battered senseless after the service. This is the reason I was here: to imagine the prayer services of 1989.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

The prayer for peace apparently does not have a set order of service or a certain style. Every week there is a different person or group responsible for structuring the service. There was a variety of prayers: an introductory prayer, prayers for personal situations, prayers for Christian initiatives (preceded by descriptions of the challenges facing these initiatives), prayers for the city government (including prayer for an initiative to establish a Christian chapel in the city hall), prayers for Christians in the world, especially for persecuted Christians, prayers for hot spots (Iraq, Sudan, Yemen). There was also time for quiet prayer. And at one point we were invited to create small prayer groups and pray spontaneously for Christians in the world. The service had a clear structure that was carried out with concentration and care. We sang contemporary Christian songs, which the congregation seemed to enjoy singing, but there was no question of getting carried away with enthusiasm. This service was characterised by an atmosphere of naturalness: no pretension, no forced cheerfulness, no moralising, no exaggeration.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

11 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

7 – The preacher from England spoke clear and correct German. I enjoyed listening to him because he spoke in a natural, unassuming manner. The tone of his sermon matched the tone of the service. He spoke in a down-to-earth way and made some striking comments and creative comparisons that kept my attention.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The sermon was based on Philippians 2:1-11 (imitating Christ's humility), which contains a hymn praising Jesus, who relinquished his divinity to assume the human condition, to become like a slave, to die on the cross for our sake. Those who belong to Christ are called to do likewise, relinquishing self-interest and self-importance to pursue that which fellow humans need. People, even Christians and even ministers, tend to build up self-esteem by comparing themselves with others and thus secretly enjoying the failures of others. But we are called to unconditional love, as exemplified in Jesus, which consists of respect and humility. The text from Philippians celebrates the day on which Christ will be universally recognised and worshipped as Lord. May what we do contribute to bringing about this day of consummation.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Being in this beautiful church for an evening service, seeing its striking ornamentation and thinking about its place in history was a piece of heaven.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

At one point we were invited to form small prayer groups and pray for Christians world-wide. At this moment I felt somewhat lost. The people in front of us knew one another and formed a group. The people behind us knew one another and formed another group. Mrs Portola and I seemed to be in no-man's land. Then the group behind us invited us to join them. Two or three people in the group prayed several times, but although I could identify with their prayers I found it difficult to find my role. It was strange to be a part of a group of earnestly praying Christians, but at the same time feeling cut off from this fellowship. This must be what the "other place" feels like.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Standing around looking lost did not attract anyone's attention, because this was not a regular congregation, but a collection of individuals who were sitting quietly or talking in small groups in various parts of the church or heading toward a side room for tea and coffee.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The after-service coffee looked inviting. It was in a cosy side room of the church. Aside from coffee there were a variety of teas available. Also offered were belegte Brtchen (open-faced sandwiches on bread rolls). I am sure that if I had stayed I would have become engaged in interesting conversation, but I was tired and wanted to get home.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

8 – This church and this congregation are full of vitality. They offer many activities and groups and have a unique heritage. It would be a privilege to be a part of this Christian community. But I would need to know more about what happens on Sunday and during the week before really deciding if I could find my place and my identity in this community.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

The tone of the service – warm-hearted and unpretentious – made me glad to be a Christian. This service demonstrated the concern of Christianity for all that is going on in the world, especially as it affects those who are helpless. This service, which contained so many different types of prayer, conveyed the message that God can be trusted and that all glory belongs to him.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The image that remains with me are the palm-tree-like columns.

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