German church finds a different way to reach out

Mar 12, 2018 by and

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Not far from the Czech and Austrian borders, a little Bavarian congregation has started doing church differently.

Last fall, members of Landau Mennonite Church in Germany began hosting Kirche Anders (Different Church) on a handful of Sunday evenings in the train station across the street from the church building, in addition to regular Sunday morning worship. The goal is to offer nudges toward God in a setting that feels safe for people uncomfortable with church.

Claudia Stangl leads a Kirche Anders event Jan. 21 in the Landau, Germany, train station. — Landau Mennonite Church

Claudia Stangl leads a Kirche Anders event Jan. 21 in the Landau, Germany, train station. — Landau Mennonite Church

Kirche Anders team leader Claudia Stangl said members of the church had been thinking for some time about reaching out to bring people into contact with God.

“We soon realized that classical worship — even if it is modern in design — usually only attracts Christians who are dissatisfied with their congregations,” she said by email in German.

The evening events, which Stangl refrains from describing as church services, lack prayer, preaching or overtly religious music.

“Of course, they are there, just not in their usual form,” she said. “We offer contemporary music from a variety of styles, often from the secular realm. But it is not a concert.

“It is important to us that the songs have meaningfulness and address people’s questions and problems. Between songs, we moderate a bit and offer brief impulses that silently and invitingly point toward God, but never in an offensive manner. We’d rather send people home with a good question than a hasty answer — and they come back! We have been very surprised by the response in the city.”

Landau Mennonite Church numbers only about 35 members. At the last Kirche Anders across the street in the train station, roughly 150 visitors came.

The evening services draw inspiration from Jesus, who was quite capable of having theological discussions with the pious Pharisees, but shared his life mostly with his followers, using everyday language that drew from examples in regular people’s lives.

“At Kirche Anders we do not want so much to speak about Jesus, but to speak like him,” Stangl said. “People’s questions at the end of the evening are often pastoral, not theological.

“Afterward, visitors can stay and chat at the bar. Above all, the church needs to be able to converse and relate.”

Beyond pious services

Several years ago, members of Landau Mennonite attended a South German Mennonite Federation gathering on the theme of doing outreach, with an emphasis on meeting people where they are, speaking as they speak, discussing things that matter to them.

The church tried a few special worship services, which still felt very “pious,” with little connection between music and message.

Since October, each event has been focused on one theme relating to everyday life. Two people from the four-person leadership team plan the theme and moderate, and the other two work with the music.

“Since it isn’t a ‘worship service,’ it also gives us the opportunity to involve local musicians in the band, some of whom aren’t believers but enjoy participating,” Stangl said.

Songs may come from German pop stars or artists like U2 and Michael Jackson. Words and graphics are projected on a screen. Some visitors stand, some sit.

“This winter we planned to do four events, and we’ve done three,” Stangl said in February. “. . . It takes a lot of effort in preparation. The band studies 10-12 new songs each time.”

Trading the liturgy and sermon for pop tunes in a train station wasn’t a slam-dunk proposition. Some church members felt the format wasn’t spiritual enough. Many attendees have no idea the Mennonite church is behind Kirche Anders, seemingly diminishing or hiding the congregation’s role.

But the people are coming, and other congregations are taking notice.

“It almost scares us a bit how much momentum we’ve generated,” Stangl said. “Not only here in Landau, but there has also been interest in the Mennonite conference.

“Above all, we realize that we ourselves have to change. We have to become linguistically and socially responsible.

“In the long run, people will not go where the best program is but where they are loved and not condemned and receive help for their needs.”

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