Mystery Worshipper: Portola
Location: Oberweißbach, Germany
Date of visit: Sunday, 10 January 2010, 10:00am
The Hoffnungskirche (Hope Church) of Oberweißbach is labeled the largest village church of Thuringia. It was dedicated in 1776 and is called the cathedral of southern Thuringia. There is room for 2000 worshippers, including seating on three balconies. The pulpit is considered the largest in Europe; 12 preachers could stand together on this pulpit. A constant challenge facing the congregation of Oberweißbach is the on-going restoration of the Hoffnungskirche. During Communist times there were no funds to keep the church intact. At one time the building was in danger of collapsing. Various renovations, costing €3.6, have stabilised the church and restored much of its beauty. But there is still much to be done, when new funding and further contributions become available.
They are affiliated with churches of three neighbouring villages: Cursdorf, Deesbach and Lichtenhain. The Hoffnungskirche has groups for seniors, women and children; there are also a mother and child group, regular choir rehearsals,and confirmation instruction. One of the previous churches was destroyed with the church records during the Thirty Years War, so that it is no longer documented how old the Christian community of this village is.
Oberweißbach is a village sitting high up on a steep slope of the mountainous Thuringian Forest, a popular vacation and winter sport area in the middle of Germany. The drive up to this church from the valley through a fir forest was steep and curvy. On this Sunday the forest was covered heavily with fresh snow and the temperature was subfreezing. The village was a center for the fabrication of medicinal curatives in the 18th century, which brought wealth to the village and accounts for the size and the rich decorations of the church. The most famous son of Oberweißbach is Friedrich Frbel (1782-1852), who founded the first kindergarten and who was baptised in this church.
The service was lead by Frau Pastorin Gabriele Bollmann. The organist was Herr Thomas Brandt.
What was the name of the service?Gottesdienst (Service of God)
How full was the building?
The service took place in the church hall, which is a back room of the church; it has an altar area and small organ and seats about 50 or 60 people. Eleven people were present (not counting pastor and organist). The large church is not used in the winter (except on Christmas Eve) because it is too cold, and the cost of heating would be prohibitive.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
We were greeted with a handshake and a friendly "Good morning!" by the person handing out the hymnbooks. A woman who seated herself next to us also greeted us with polite friendliness.
Was your pew comfortable?
The chairs were comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The pre-service atmosphere was lively and cheerful, as congregational members greeted one another.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The opening words, translated into idiomatic English: "Greetings to you as we worship together on this first Sunday after Epiphany."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Evangelical Hymnbook for Bavaria and Thuringia.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
A pleasant one: a small girl sitting in front of us kept turning around again and again to stare at Frau Portola. Apparently, this girl found something fascinating about her, because she moved her eyes over my wife from head to foot, as though she were trying to memorise what she was seeing.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was liturgical but not stiff, due to the cheerful manner of the pastor leading the service. But it was somewhat unpredictable. There were moments when hymn verses were sung unexpectedly, without prelude, as part of the order of service. By the time I figured out what was going on and had opened the hymn book to the appropriate place, it was too late really to participate. Holy communion was not celebrated see below.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The pastor had a natural, agreeable style of speaking. At times she was spontaneous and spoke from the heart about her own faith and impressions in an appropriate way. She addressed the congregation as though she were speaking to friends or family members. Her message was pure gospel and reflected Lutheran theology.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The theme of the sermon was vernnftige Gottesdienst (reasonable service of God), a term taken from the sermon text of Romans 12:16 (serve God in proportion to your gifts). The basis for all service for God is God himself, who serves us (which is also Gottesdienst). He is like the sun, which shines on good and bad. He always affirms us regardless of weaknesses. We are called upon to do activities that radiate the warmth we receive from him. Gottesdienst as service to God can consist of everyday activities: caring for someone who is old, raising a child, clearing the sidewalk of snow, baking a cake or making coffee, filling out a statistic sheet, singing in the choir. Service to God is not limited to church people. Reasonable service means we do what we can, not trying to do too much, but accepting our limitations and remaining within the framework of God's love to us.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The enormous snow outside, as seen through the church windows, gave this service a heavenly dimension. To be in this village service on this cold morning in this brightly lit room with people who sang enthusiastically and obviously enjoyed celebrating a worship service was heavenly.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Something that was missing was holy communion. I have attended at least 20 worship services in various East German churches and only once was holy communion celebrated and that celebration was not part of the service but was an appendage after the service. One East German church I encountered offers communion only four times a year. This infrequency of the altar sacrament means that something fundamental is missing: Christian worship without the Lord's Supper is truncated, because it does not involve the whole person and remains unculminated. There is no holy communion in "the other place."
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I hung around after the service, but no one came up to me, which I was not expecting anyway. The few people present were understandably involved with getting up-to-date with one another. The pastor greeted us cordially as we left, and after hanging around in the large church we became engaged in conversation with a retired pastor.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No after-service coffee; it is not a tradition in Germany.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – I'm sure that this congregation consists of dedicated and friendly people who deserve respect for carrying Christianity through the Communist regime and keeping the church building from becoming dilapidated. There have been impressive renovations in difficult circumstances. But being a city person, I don't think I could feel completely comfortable in a village. And I would prefer a congregation that offers communion more regularly. The church newsletter, which lists worship services in this area, indicates infrequent communion.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. It was delightful to be in a remote mountain village on a subfreezing morning and experiencing the same gospel that is proclaimed worldwide.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Going out of the church into the quiet, snow-bound village, seeing the steep flanks of the white-clad forest, and despite below-freezing temperatures feeling the warm glow of this Christian fellowship.