Mystery Worshipper: Portola
Church: St Marienkirche
Location: Röbel, Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, Germany
Date of visit: Sunday, 21 June 2009, 3:00pm
Go into any city or town in the northeast part of Germany and ask directions to St Marys Church; you will undoubtedly receive directions to a brick-Gothic church that was started in the 13th century, completed in the 15th and became Lutheran in the 16th. I have visited at least 50 churches during my vacation in this part of Germany and have yet to find a city which does not have a St Marys Church (although some small villages do actually find other names for their churches). And if the city has two churches, the second will probably be a St Nikolai Church. The town of Röbel fits into this pattern. It goes without saying that St Marien is a beautiful example of the 13th century brick-Gothic style. The church is somewhat unique in that it contains a lookout deck (Aussichtsplattform). Some valuable and attractive art works grace the interior. The theme of the service was visible: four large masks had been hung from the front chandelier in the altar area, and small masks decorated the pews.
The church is very popular with tourists. That the staff manage to keep the church open throughout the week is impressive, because it requires a large number of volunteers (usually around 20 people are required).
Röbel is a town in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern that sits on Lake Mueritz, Germany's largest lake and a popular recreation spot. The church overlooks the lake.
The service was prepared and led by six members of the congregation who wanted to offer a contemporary worship experience for younger people who might not be attracted to traditional worship. They do this type of service about twice a year, and this was their fourth altogether. Unfortunately, I cannot provide their names; they did not introduce themselves and their names were not listed anywhere.
What was the name of the service?"The other worship service." The theme of the service was masks or role playing which hide the true identity of a person
How full was the building?
The main part of the church was about two-thirds full but the side naves were empty. Unusual, according to my experience, is that the congregation actually sat in the front part of the church; the more elderly sat toward the back (which is not uncommon). It was a good balance of generations.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
We arrived 10 minutes before the start of the service. There were two persons (part of the team responsible for this service) standing at the door, but they neither greeted us nor offered us the song sheets they were holding. They must have assumed we were tourists, not necessarily interested in the service. After going into the church, I went back and asked for a song sheet. A person who sat next to us said hello to us when she arrived.
Was your pew comfortable?
The cushioned pew was comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The pre-service atmosphere was calm. Although most of the worshipers knew one another, there were hardly any personal greetings or short conversations before the service. Also, I did not feel the sense of anticipation that usually precedes worship. The atmosphere was almost subdued.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"I welcome you heartily to our afternoon worship service here in St Marys Church."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
No hymn books were used. The hymns on the song sheet were contemporary.
What musical instruments were played?
The songs were accompanied by a keyboard and two electric guitars. The singing was led by one of the guitar players and she was backed up by a group of vocalists.
Did anything distract you?
Two people whom I could not see, but who occasionally could be heard conversing with one another. The art works in the church were a pleasant distraction.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was not liturgical, not stiff, but also not spontaneous; it was efficiently prepared and had a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. Part of the service was a small scene of role playing, in which one woman put on masks according to the situation (addressing her boss, her daughter, or her friend) and talked about the role playing involved (being always friendly, or always strict, or always ready to please others). This scene posed the question: Who am I?
Exactly how long was the sermon?
I have to confess that I cannot give the exact length, because the sermon had begun before I realised it. It took me completely by surprise. But I estimate it lasted about 12 minutes.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – Two people shared in the delivery. They spoke clearly, directly and to the point. This is the highest mark I give non-charismatic speakers.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The first speaker singled out three people at random and accused them of unethical or dishonest behavior. He then talked about how unnerving it is to be exposed and how it leads to defensiveness. The second speaker then read from scripture, John 4:1-26, the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob's Well. Jesus exposed this woman as having morally questionable relationships. Jesus stripped away her mask but did not look down upon her; rather, he showed that he cared for her. Jesus accepts us personally as we are, and in this way the kingdom of God can unfold inside us.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The woman who led the singing had a clear, natural and sweet voice. Listening to her sing was like being in heaven. The accompaniment was also effective: it pulsated without being too loud. It was easy to sing along.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
One the one hand, I was impressed by the relaxed atmosphere of this service; there was no sign of nervousness or hustle-bustle. But perhaps it was too relaxed, too subdued. There seemed to be an overall lack of energy, a lack of enthusiasm. The singing of the congregation was too quiet. And worship without energy and charisma is like "being in the other place." Germany is perhaps the only country in this world in which the congregation remains sitting during the singing of hymns, which strikes me as an inappropriate body language for songs of praise. In the "other place" no one stands up to honour God with praise.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
As the congregation left, the tourists poured in. There would have been no point in hanging around after the service looking lost. We followed everyone over to the parsonage garden for coffee. There, I stood around looking lost for at least five minutes but no one approached me. Finally, as I happened to be standing under a cherry tree, someone mentioned how crisp the cherries would be when they are ripe.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
In Germany there is no such thing as bad church coffee. A unique feature was powdered cream for the coffee, which I had never encountered in Germany until now. As an American I felt right at home. The home-made cake was delicious. Also offered was Schmalzbrot (bread spread with goose fat) and pickles.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – The church, as mentioned, is rich with beauty and art. Surrounded by high trees on a hill overlooking a lake, it has an attractive setting. The congregation are obviously decent and friendly people.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, especially because of the spiritual competence of the lay members who prepared this service. It is extremely encouraging to encounter laymen who are capable of proclaiming the gospel with clarity, authority and humour in the context of contemporary life.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The competent efficiency with which the worship group led this service.