Grüß Gott! Mom invited me to share about my time in Germany this past summer. I thought I’d focus on what it’s like to attend a Protestant church service in Germany, because it’s hard to find that information online. Also, it was beautiful to learn how the body of Christ worships in another culture and I hope to share that delight with you!
Attending Protestant Church Services in Germany
I’ve had the privilege of worshiping at different denominations in the U.S., which helped prepare me for my experience in Germany. Different traditions have certain ways of worshiping and talking about worship so that attending a different denomination can feel like a foreign experience, even though it’s in your language. Depending on your own faith background, some of what I will describe may sound like your own tradition, or quite different.
While in Germany, I have attended Catholic mass as well as services at a Freikirche and a student Campus Für Christus worship service (Cru’s ministry in Germany). The majority of services I have attended are part of Germany’s largest Protestant denomination, the Evangelische Kirche, which is like U.S. reformed churches and Lutheran churches (more on this at the end of the post, if you’re interested). I’ll be describing the Evangelische Kirche experience since I have attended many churches belonging to that group and can make a more accurate generalization.
Your very first encounter with a church in Germany will still be miles away from the physical building. Half an hour to fifteen minutes before the start of the service, the church begins ringing its bells (and other churches may be ringing their bells, too), drawing you toward its doors. You might think you know what a bell sounds like, but it’s fuller and deeper than what I experienced in America. Listen to this video to get a sense of what it’s like to walk through a German town while all the churches ring their bells. Notice that even after the bells stop ringing, there is a deep throbbing that lingers for a while. It feels mysterious and holy. My first time in Germany, I often slept with the window open. Easter morning at the very break of dawn, all the churches in the valley rang every bell they had to celebrate Christ’s resurrection. I nearly leapt out of bed, thinking they were sounding the alarm of an invasion before I remembered that it was Easter—the best invasion of all! It’s also lovely to be hiking up on a hill and to hear a church or a monastery down in the valley below ringing out the hour.
When you enter the church, you will need to pick up a bulletin (not always provided), a Gesangbuch (hymnal), and Agende (book of liturgy, similar to the Book of Common Prayer).
Arrive early. You’ll need time to find and bookmark the different places for the liturgy and hymns in your books. If the church does not provide a bulletin, the numbers of the songs are posted on the wall at the front of the sanctuary. This “analog” way of running the service will already be familiar to some of you. For someone like me, who grew up with everything via PowerPoint slides on a screen, it helped that I’d already been to different kinds of services in the States to know what to prepare for!
A German Worship Service
For the most part, you’ll be able to keep pace with the service by reading along with the liturgy, but there are a few parts that are so ingrained that they aren’t spelled out in the liturgy: particularly when it is time to greet your neighboring worshippers and when it is time to recite the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostolic Creed. This wouldn’t be a problem if in English, but in German, I was very much lost! When it came to shaking hands, I tried to smile and nod and pick up what they were saying, but with little success. With the Lord’s Prayer and Apostolic Creed, I recited them in English, but had no idea if I was “on track.” I was able to memorize the first half of the Lord’s Prayer in German, which helped me feel more like I was a part of the congregation.
In a state church like the majority of the ones I visited, the tithe is already taken out as a tax (explained below), so a collection during the service is usually a freewill offering to help toward the maintenance of the building or toward a missions project the church is sponsoring.
Usually, there are two readings, and then the sermon which relates to the readings as well as current events. The pastor stands in a raised pulpit that is next to the first few rows of pews. This helps with acoustics, though these days the pastor usually has a microphone and speakers as well.
I also attended a confirmation and a baptism. The day of confirmation had the largest congregation I had seen in Germany (disclaimer: I am only ever in Germany in the summer during “off-season” while many are on vacation, so my sense of German congregation size is skewed). All the attending family and friends watched their young ones declare their faith.
The day of baptism (mainly teenagers and adults) was especially remarkable, with half of those baptized coming from immigrant or refugee families. Every person read a declaration of faith in their native language; if it was not in German, their sponsors would translate it into German. Baptism was in a room off to the left of the chancel, where participants would lean over the baptismal font and the pastor would pour water on their head.
My favorite part of the German service is das Abendmahl (you may know it as Communion, the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper). For the whole service, you have been facing and contemplating the altar and the cross that are in a separate space from the congregation. But for Abendmahl, the congregation is invited to fill the chancel and apse, surrounding the altar and the cross in a circle. In smaller congregations, everyone is able to fit. Only one church had too many. They repeated communion three times to accommodate everyone.
The pastor, altar servers, and deacons go around the circle, stopping at each person to administer the bread and the wine. After each person receives the wine, one of the assistants wipes the edge of the cup before the next person drinks from it. Once the entire circle has received communion, they all join hands as the pastor offers intercessory prayer and a blessing. Then you look into the eyes of the two people next to you, smile and offer a blessing, and return to your pew.
This is my favorite part of the service because it strikes a nice balance between the importance of the rite and the joyful communal nature of it. We are no longer separated from the cross and Christ’s body but are surrounding it, holding hands as a body of believers, not strangers. You see faces of people, when before you could only see the backs of heads. All five senses are engaged, as you smell and taste the wafer and wine, see and touch your fellow congregants, and hear the organ music playing.
Toward the end of the service, around the time the pastor offers a blessing, the bells above begin to ring again, which sends tingles down your spine! After the service is over, some churches offer time to mingle over coffee and pastries. I still haven’t mastered the art of German small talk, but have been able to meet some very friendly people during this time of fellowship.
Thank you for reading! I hope you found this interesting and informative. Please post a comment on what stood out to you as similar or different! If your denomination practices communion in the same way, please let me know because I find it fascinating.
Grüß Gott is used in Southern Germany and Austria as a way of saying hello or good day, but it means God’s greetings. I’ve only encountered it in religious settings in Germany these days, though it used to be more common.
About photography in a church or cathedral:
The pictures in this post are my own and were not taken during a service. If you are sightseeing and enjoying a church’s architecture, please be respectful of the sanctity of the service and the congregants’ beliefs and wait to do the touristy things until the service is over.
A very brief overview of German denominations:
The role of the church within the nation of Germany is quite different than within America. Germans who are members of a Catholic or Protestant congregation (as well as other religious groups) pay something called a “church tax” or “worship tax”, which is taken out of their paychecks through their employer. In my limited understanding, the money collected via tax both supports your congregation and is redistributed to other churches within your affiliation who might have smaller congregations. This is only anecdotal, however; I was unable to find more specific information online.
The largest Protestant group in Germany is the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland, but what Americans associate with the word “evangelical” would be misleading. These federal churches resemble mainline churches in the U.S., both in the way the service is run and in their response to social changes in the larger culture. They are organized like parishes, in that people tend to attend the church in their area, though they can opt to attend a different church.
The Freikirchen, or free churches, refers either to their theology or their organizational structure. They are often related to church denominations like Methodist and Baptist.
Our daughter, Jenn, is a Ph.D. candidate specializing in Medieval German love lyric at the University of Minnesota. She hopes to finish her dissertation in December 2021. She and her husband Brian are excitedly expecting their first child in mid-May. When she isn’t teaching German or working on her dissertation, Jenn enjoys reading Jane Austen, going for long walks with her husband, and painting nature.