bulletin 2/2013

Hospitable churches with open doors

By Rev. Michael Landwehr, pastor of Samedan and co-initiator of the brochure “Reliably Open,” available at www.kirche-tourismus.ch (german)

Switzerland’s roughly 1200 church congregations do not lack for buildings – with one or more places for Christians to gather, they are “open” to the people. Some of these Protestant churches are even open during the week. There have long been initiatives in Germany, which developed into projects in the individual regional churches, and which have now grown into a major movement within the “Church, Leisure, and Tourism” program of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), which has been met with particular enthusiasm in regions such as Bavaria.

There have been various activities in Switzerland related to this, as for example in the church in St. Gallen. The idea is indeed compelling: Why are churches only open on Sunday? There is clearly a need to be able to visit church buildings even when there are no worship services. The Protestant congregation in Samedan has supported the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches’ “Church and Tourism” commission’s project for regularly open church doors from the very beginning. This does not indeed come as a surprise as Samedan pastor Michael Landwehr was the one who initiated the project for Switzerland’s churches. As someone who has always felt a particular commitment to the cross-section of touristic and church issues and areas of endeavor, and who sees considerable potential for both in the region, it was a matter of course to build up the idea of opening up church buildings outside of worship services and cultural events in Switzerland.

… not only Sundays at 10

“Importing the idea from Germany was one thing; adapting and implementing the project here – even though there was a need for it – was yet another,” explained Rev. Landwehr. “For this, you need to work hard, to be convincing at different levels, piquing the interest of congregation decision-makers, many of whom have at time been skeptics as well,” he added. The pastor added that one should not lose hope but seek out dialogue locally with everyone involved: parish council members, sacristans, organists, pastors, deacons, secretaries, tourism association members, tourist information employees, etc. The brochure that Landwehr put together under the aegis of the FSPC extends an attractive invitation to look into this topic, through information and inspiration as to how this can unfold and what one must take into account. While the brochure can be ordered from the FSPC or downloaded from the website (www.kirche-tourismus.ch), the Commission also offers the chance for interested congregations to receive direct support in this process from Rev. Landwehr. And the success of the program is plain to see. As Landwehr explained: “Many churches are now open in Switzerland, even among the Reformed churches. This serves as a calling card for us as a church in the region, and rounds it out with a positive image of a church that cannot be reduced to just Sunday mornings but which takes a more holistic and hospitable view of the people.” He added: “We are close to God and close to the people.” According to Landwehr, an especially large number of people have been visiting church buildings in the Engadin tourist region and in the village of Samedan in the Upper Engadin, in particular. “We began modestly with a wooden sign that told people to fetch the church key from the flower ship across the way. We then introduced an automatic key system. That was possible because the process was convincing.” In his numerous meetings with visitors and locals alike, Rev. Landwehr has been met with a consistently positive reaction to the open church program. “When churches are recognized as being open, people of all ages come and enjoy a break from their leisure time or daily routines. And sometimes there are more visitors during the week than on Sunday mornings,” he chuckled. As we can read in the brochure: “Whether locals, chance visitors, art enthusiasts, people in crisis, pilgrims, or tourists – churches speak to people however and whether or not they have a connection with church and faith. The unforced atmosphere, open to all and created by the congregations, serves as its “worship service” in the midst of everyday life. The aura of the church buildings provides a refreshing counterpoint amid our hectic and fast-paced world. Churches are a sermon made of glass, wood, metal, and stone. They invite us to meet with God and encourage us to reflect. They are places of life and not museums. We experience them as centers of living and diverse spirituality and encounter – even during the week.” People speak to Landwehr of the refreshing atmosphere, the tranquility, and the thoughts that enrich them on their life journeys – as inspired by the building, the church interior, and their experiences there. The guestbook is also full of very positive remarks: “People add their prayer wishes or thanks for healing, or simply praise the beauty of the church and the tranquility within.” Items like the guestbook and other reading materials, as well as parish information and various trinkets for people to take – chocolate with a verse from the Bible, butterflies for people of all ages to color in, a teabag with a greeting card, or a heart-shaped carabiner – the open church becomes something personal for visitors, bringing the congregation to life with a recognizable image. Landwehr explains that this is “an offer that one can make use of, but does not have to: a church for passersby, a church on the road, and a community of the way – just as far as anyone wishes to go, that is important to me.” He then closes with a look forward: “We have recently had thoughts about publishing a written guide to the church, with a refreshingly vivid depiction of the congregation and all it has to offer; or perhaps an internet-based, audiovisual medium instead; or maybe even training an attractive church guide to welcome visitors.” There are so many possibilities – and perhaps other congregations will soon open up their church doors on a regular basis as well.