Mystery Worshipper: Portola
Location: Hessen Center, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Date of visit: Monday, 24 May 2021, 11:00am
The Hessen Center, an indoor shopping mall, was built in 1971. It is the smallest of the five shopping centers of Frankfurt. It has 115 stores distributed over three floors and provides employment for about 1000 people. In the course of time it has been expanded and renovated. Its parking decks were recently restructured. This year it will be celebrating its 50th anniversary. Except for grocery, drug and service stores, the shopping mall has been closed down for months because of the pandemic. The manager of the center was personally involved with the preparations for this service. He reportedly supported this service enthusiastically because it was an encouraging sign after months of adversity.
The initiative for this service, according to a newspaper report, came from young people who wanted to celebrate a live service again, instead of just transmitting and viewing them online. This was a grassroots movement among youth from various congregations, including altar servers, which began just four weeks ago. A 23-year old kindergarten teacher who enjoys drive-in movies was one of the key organizers of this event. Four congregations were involved: Katholische Pfarrgemeinde Heilig Kreuz, which belongs to the diocese of Fulda; Evangelische Kirchengemeinde Bergen-Enkheim, which belongs to the Evangelische Kirche von Kurhessen-Waldeck; the non-denominational Freie Evangelische Mosaik Kirche Bergen-Enkheim; and the non-denominational Atterberry Chapel, a multicultural church with services in English, which was represented by six singers from their large choir.
The Hessen Center is in the Bergen-Enkheim district of Frankfurt. Mentioned since the 13th century, Bergen-Enkheim was originally a village to the east of the city, but in 1977 it became a city district of Frankfurt. It is a popular place to live because of its good infrastructure and rural green areas. Sixty-eight clubs (Vereine) are located in this city district, a higher density of clubs than anywhere else in Frankfurt. Adjacent to the Hessen Center are the surface tracks of an underground train line that has contributed heavily to the success of this shopping mall, making it easily accessible for people who live inside and outside of Frankfurt. The Hessen Center put many neighborhood stores of Bergen-Enkheim out of business.
Two men and four women from three congregations led this service; these included the Roman Catholic priest and the parish worker of Heilig-Kreuz, the pastor of the Evangelische Gemeinde Bergen-Enkheim, and the pastor of the Freie Evangelische Gemeinde Mosaik.
What was the name of the service?CarChurching, an ecumenical drive-in worship service with the theme: ‘Visible togetherness – stimulated by God’s Spirit.’
How full was the building?
The reported attendance was 180 persons. With regard to the allotted number of cars, the park deck was filled to capacity. The registration list for the service was booked out. There was space for more cars and bicycles, but in order to see and hear the service, one had to be reasonably close to the stage.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
The traffic monitors who directed us to our parking place were very friendly and cheerful. They made us feel immediately welcome.
Was your pew comfortable?
A car seat is more comfortable than a church pew.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The physical preparations for this service, such as setting up the stage, began at 5.00am, six hours before the service began. (Pentecost Monday is a public holiday in Germany.) The pre-service atmosphere was lively: about one-half hour before the service began, the six members of the Atterberry chapel choir sang praise music, which animated the listeners. People were walking around, talking to one another, congregating in small groups, making last-minute preparations. There was a wooden tree structure next to the stage, on which children hung pictures that they had colored in by hand depicting the symbolism of Pentecost: doves, flames, rainbows. Announcements were made asking car-drivers to stay inside their cars, or to wear masks when outside.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘A cordial welcome to this ecumenical worship service on Pentecost Monday!’ The first liturgical words: ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A program sheet with the order of service, the texts of the hymns, and a list of participating people and congregations. Which Bible translations were used was not recognizable to me.
What musical instruments were played?
Keyboard, two guitars, about fifteen brass band instruments, drums.
Did anything distract you?
After the service began, a lot of people were still walking around taking photos or perhaps just wanting to get a closer look at the stage. After about ten minutes this movement came to a standstill. The wind blowing on the microphones produced a rumbling sound, or perhaps I should call it ‘the sound of a rushing wind’ since we were celebrating Pentecost. The microphones occasionally malfunctioned, but problems were immediately corrected. From our perspective we could see and hear the trains passing by the park deck. There was also a drone hovering above us.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The order of service included the traditional elements of Christian worship: invocation, prayers, two biblical readings, sermons, Apostles’ Creed, intercessions, Lord’s Prayer, a closing blessing. There were four hymns – all accompanied by a brass band of about 15 musicians from the Evangelische Gemeinde Bergen-Enkheim, who also played a prelude and postlude to the service. Instead of a traditional psalm, there was a ‘Poetry-Slam to Psalm 23.’ The praise band of the Mosaik Congregation sang once during the service. The Atterberry Chapel choir sang before and after the service. Car-drivers were supposed to remain in (or at least near) their cars. Bicyclists stood at convenient locations. Despite protective face masks, the body language of the worshipers indicated a mood of joy and delight, as well as concentrated listening. Those who did the readings and intercessions were energetic and unpretentious.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There were three sermons, which altogether took 18 minutes.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 — All three preachers were pleasant to listen to and conveyed authenticity.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
[First sermon, by the Protestant minister (5 minutes)]: At the first Pentecost in Jerusalem, people from various nations with numerous languages were gathered together. The Spirit created a unity among them. Today also in our city, people come together from a variety of nations, languages, cultures and religions. The message of Pentecost is that people should not be evaluated on the basis of their origins. For example, what would the Eintracht Frankfurt be (the local football club) without its international players? Church congregations reflect international diversity (especially in the kindergartens) and unify people from various backgrounds. The Spirit overcomes those things that normally separate people, making us recognizable as children of God. [Second sermon, by the pastor (a woman) of the Mosaic Church (8 minutes)]: Before Pentecost the disciples were afraid, uncertain and speechless. It was as though they were entering a fog. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit transformed Jesus’ followers, filling them with hope and courage, enabling them to take the light of the gospel into the world – without the help of social media! This indwelling of the Spirit was like a second Incarnation. The Spirit cannot be grasped, but his effect can be felt and seen: out of individuals he creates greatness. This service today can also be considered a visible sign of the Spirit. [Third sermon, by the Roman Catholic priest (5 minutes)]: The Hessen Center draws people together who live as far away as Fulda (100 km / 60 miles). They come here to purchase what they need for their daily life. They are reminiscent of the post-war generation, which was preoccupied with rebuilding a foundation for material well-being, but which often neglected that which the human spirit needs. A person does not live from what comes out of a refrigerator. We live from what the Holy Spirit creates, those things that carry and sustain us: human relationships, values that are not derived from materialism, being there for one another. This is what we represent as church people.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
At the very end, the Atterberry Chapel choir sang ‘O Happy Day’ in a way that energized everybody, because it brought to culmination the joy and spirit of this service. One of the traffic monitors, a young woman dressed in a neon-green vest, danced expressively and enthusiastically to the music. This joyful dance in combination with the soulful singing was absolutely delightful.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Because of the pandemic, congregational singing at services – even outdoors – is still not officially sanctioned. Behind the protective masks of people standing around the stage and of unmasked people inside the cars, a muted singing could occasionally be heard faintly. This muzzled singing was a sign that we are still too near to the ‘other place.’
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Since I was parked in the front row and was asked to move the car as soon as the service ended, there was no chance of hanging around afterwards.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No after-service coffee, but during the service we could drink coffee that we had brought with us.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 — Attending another service like this would be irresistible.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. This service was a public witness to the vitality, diversity and relevance of Christian faith.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The young woman who embodied joy in the Spirit with her thrilling dance to ‘O Happy Day.’