Mystery Worshipper: Portola
Church: St Alban's
Location: Laichingen, Germany
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 September 2011, 9:30am
The present church was built in the 14th century in High Gothic style. In the course of the next seven centuries there were several additions, changes and renovations: a balcony was added in 1593; the pulpit was built 1662/63. In 1850/52 the church was transformed into a so-called "classical sermon hall" style and a "Romantic" organ was put in at that time. Surrounding the church is a park-like setting, which is ideal for after-service coffee on sunny days. There are plans in the works to remove the uncomfortable pews and replace them with flexible seating. Also, a kitchen, toilets, and two new rooms are to be added. As is to be expected, there is some resistance to the proposed changes, which according to the newsletter is partially an honest exchange of opinions, but also can take the form of ugly, anonymous rumours about the competency of the ministers.
The origins of the Christian community at Laichingen go back to 800. The Reformation reached Laichingen in 1536. The congregation has two ministers, three kindergartens (with four groups of children), a women's group, a youth group, a group for small children called Fisherman's Friends, and at least one house group. But there are probably groups and activities not listed in the newsletter. The congregation strive to maintain a balance between tradition and change that they hope will lead to stability and growth. There seems to be an emphasis on instituting contemporary worship and small groups. The newsletter rather boldly comes down in favour of change: "Whoever wishes the Church to remain the same," it states, "does not wish the Church to remain."
The church is framed by historic half-timbered houses, ancient walls, and gates. This ensemble of structures is referred to as the "church fortress." Laichingen is a small town midway between Stuttgart and Augsburg, about 100 miles west of Munich. It is in the middle of the Schwbische Alb (Swabian Highlands), a scenic high plateau in southern Germany with picturesque valleys, castles, monasteries, and cosy towns with half-timbered houses.
Herr Pfarrer Albrecht Lchele, pastor; Herr Manuel Ritsch, theology student. The names of the organist and the keyboard player were not mentioned in the Kirchenzettel (information leaflet) or in the newsletter.
What was the name of the service?Worship Service with Baptisms
How full was the building?
Well-filled. I could not judge the capacity, but there were at least 100 in attendance. I could not see how many people were sitting in the balcony. A contributing factor were the three baptisms, which meant that three families with godparents and guests were in attendance.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Pfarrer Lchele (which translates into English as Pastor Smiley) greeted us personally with a handshake and engaged us in a short conversation. Other people acknowledged our presence in a friendly way with a "Guten Morgen" or a wave. Hymn books and the Kirchenzettel (mentioned above) were not handed out, but it was assumed that participants would help themselves.
Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was not comfortable, which is why the church council wants to replace them. The space between the pews was designed for the shorter people who lived centuries ago. I had to sit crooked, with my knees pressing against the pew in front. On the other hand, I didn't mind this inconvenience it forced me to sit with a proper posture and did not allow me to slouch, as I tend to do.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Lively. The singing group was practicing as I came in; it was pleasant to listen to their singing and the keyboard accompaniment. There was energetic conversation, which got louder as more people entered.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"We celebrate our worship service in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Evangelisches Gesangbuch Ausgabe fr die Evangelische Landeskirche in Württemberg (Evangelical Hymnal Prepared for the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Württemberg). The words of the songs were projected onto two screens, above which was a portrait of Martin Luther. I'll have more to say in a moment about the portrait.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ and electric keyboard.
Did anything distract you?
The organ prelude is supposed to provide an opportunity for quiet prayer at the beginning of the service. However, several people not only continued to talk with one another during the prelude, but they talked even louder than before, because they were competing with the organ. During the sermon the pastor had to stand up and admonish the confirmands to pay attention; apparently some of them were conversing or playing with their cell phones.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
From what I had heard about the church in Württemberg, I was expecting a sober, straight-laced style of service. Instead, I encountered a refreshing liveliness. Some of the songs were traditional Lutheran chorales, accompanied by the organ, but the majority were contemporary praise songs, in which the congregation were led by six singers. The congregation sang with animation and even clapped their hands, but in typical German style they remained seated during the singing. The distinct Swabian accent of this region could be heard. There was humour, and there were moments when love and care emerged especially during the baptisms or when the preacher was given a present.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – It was an honest exposition of the sermon text for this Sunday: Isaiah 29:1724 (in a little while shall come an end to ignorance and injustice). Herr Manuel Ritsch used pauses, personal experiences and change of tempo effectively. He had a solid message to proclaim. His description of the mountains of Lebanon (a theme within the sermon text) was striking. I think that when he gains in experience, he will learn to speak with more compactness and perhaps with more animation.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Isaiah is a prophet who sees behind the façade and shakes up the complacency of people, especially those who are self-satisfied or who speak mockingly. He sees the hidden sufferings and injustices, which society prefers to ignore. But he also sees a day coming on which there will be liberation and healing that will encompass all creation, a salvation that will include the dejected and the disadvantaged. There are signs of this coming day that one can see, not by looking at human achievement, but by focusing on what God has done and is doing.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Toward the end of the service, a young man who had been confirmed in this church several years ago explained how the house group to which he belongs had come into being out of a desire to read and discuss Biblical texts in a small group setting. This charming moment which revealed that the desire to read and discuss the Bible is very much alive among young people was like a foretaste of heaven.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The newsletter described how the council and the clergy are trying to deal with the cruel rumours and unfounded accusations surrounding the renovation plans. As an outsider I cannot know what is really happening there are two sides to every issue but I do know church life intimately and it would not be surprising to discover that something malignant is lurking in the darkness of anonymity. A German proverb states: "Where God builds a church, the devil builds a chapel next to it."
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
It was a mob scene, with lots of lively conversation in small groups. The church was so full that no one would have noticed me standing at the back. I hung around where the refreshments were being offered, but no one spoke to me.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The after-service coffee was prepared by a house group (the one to which the young man who had spoken belongs). In addition to coffee and tea, there were also mineral water (which was my beverage of choice) and an assortment of fruit juices. There were also cookies and home-made cake.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – The church itself is strikingly beautiful. When I walked in I was immediately immersed in a sacred atmosphere. This service revealed that many good things are happening here, for which the community can be grateful. It would be challenging to be a part of this congregation, because they are focused on reaching out to those who do not yet belong. They seem to have a clear identity and to know what kind of Christian community they want to be. I was impressed with the transparency of communication between pastors, church council and congregation.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. It never ceases to amaze me that Christian faith is the same in so many different places. At this service I encountered the same spirit of Jesus and the same Christian faith that I experience everywhere else, whether in Great Britain, the USA, or eastern or western Germany.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Earlier I mentioned the portrait of Martin Luther. Luther's face in this painting is devoid of expression, as though he wanted nothing to do with this service. On the one hand, he would certainly have approved of using contemporary music to glorify God, because this is what he did in the 16th century. On the other hand, he was not oblivious to quality or lack thereof in music. In this service, in which praise songs and Lutheran chorales were sung side by side, it became apparent that some contemporary music lacks the backbone of the strong chorale melodies. But the congregation obviously enjoyed singing these songs, so I think that Luther would have enjoyed the situation even if he did look bored.