This was a phrase written by a person in the guest-book of the Night Church. This is precisely what the Project Night Church, in the Cathedral of Copenhagen, Denmark, is trying to be - an effort to do mission and evangelism in the context of a Western postmodern and secularized society. Hoping to be a light in the middle of the night, not only at the end of the day, but also in the darkness of the people’s lives, thirsty for the good news of Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This is an important and beautiful initiative involving twelve churches in the city struggling to be faithful to the Lord, finding new forms of being the Body of Christ, in a meaningful way, creating a space for dialogue, that produces meaning for the life of the people, in the midst of a meaningless society, fragmented by consumerism and commodification of life.
In a quiet setting, right in the middle of the city’s noise, the project provides an opportunity for “outsiders” and for the “seekers” to meet, to have a cup of tea or coffee together, to write, to walk around, or simply to kneel and pray.
Frequently Cathedrals have been used for performing concerts and this is also the case in Copenhagen, but what makes the experience unique is the way that art is used as an instrument to share the good news. Furthermore the regular church activities such as worship, Holy Communion, reading and interpreting the Bible, prayers, etc., are developed in an innovative way, enabling people to feel welcome and embraced. But perhaps the most meaningful characteristic of the project is sharing in the love of Christ “doing nothing”, just being in calm, in silence.
We are very happy to share with our readers this beautiful and meaningful project, which indeed has been a blessing for the people related to it.
We are also including in this issue of the Ecumenical Letter on Evangelism, a statement, “Following the Traces of God in This World”, which was written by the participants in the Seminar “Sharing the Good News in the Middle East”, held in Aleppo, Syria, June 2002.
We want to thank all the persons that have made this publication in four languages possible, and we pray for the Lord to continue blessing and multiplying the work that he has laid on your shoulders.
“May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all, my brothers and sisters. Amen” (Galatians 6:18).
Carlos E. Ham
Project Night Church
In the late summer of 1999 a new project was launched in the Cathedral of Copenhagen. Originally, the idea was to open the church to the public in the late evening hours and to give visitors an opportunity for a personal talk with a minister. During the first year, several new practices and ideas were introduced which have turned the project into a liturgical laboratory and a place of dialogue.
The first year of the Night Church project (Danish: “Natkirken”) has recently been evaluated on behalf of the twelve ‘founding’ downtown churches. This article summarizes our evaluation report (available in Danish at www.natkirken.dk).
The Night Church was originally planned to alternate between the participating city churches on an annual basis. However, it has now been decided, that the Cathedral of Copenhagen (The Church of Our Lady; Danish: “Vor Frue Kirke”), will host the project in the first four-year period. Located on a busy street where young people tend to congregate in the evening, the Cathedral is an excellent venue for the Night Church. The illuminated, impressive figure of Christ at the far end of the huge, dimly room easily catches the eye of prospective visitors who happen to cast a glance through the open doors.
The Night Church is open from 20:00 to 00:30 every Thursday and Friday night, and Sunday from 19:00 to 23:00. An evening’s staff includes a minister, a deacon and two or three volunteers. The minister’s salary is paid by the diocese of Copenhagen, while that for the deacon and all other expenses are paid for by four of the twelve participating churches.
An evening in the Night Church begins with an hour of practical work. The staff supplies all the basic props - small tables where visitors can light candles and write prayers, writing desks with notebooks for comments and discussion, tables with Bibles and leaflets, and - most recently - a new installation, “The Cross”, by the Swedish minister and artist Ingemar Thalin. “The Cross” consists of nine wooden frames containing glass fragments, sand, candles, and water, which are placed on the floor in the middle of the church.
In the first two years the total number of visitors was approximately 25,000. Most of them were between 20 and 40 years old and many of them not regular churchgoers. Some pay only a short visit, others stay for several hours. Some are Christians who are looking for a space for personal devotion, others do not consider themselves Christians but are nevertheless attracted to the silence and the “holy ambience” of the room. We have even had a few visiting Jews and Muslims.
The visitors can walk around freely in the Cathedral. The building provides many opportunities. Some visitors prefer to stay in the entrance hall for a cup of tea or coffee and a chat with one of the volunteers. Some spend much time in the writing area while others prefer to walk around and observe the imposing statues of the twelve apostles. Some visitors sit down on the cushions on the floor by “The Cross”. Many prefer to sit in the pews, some of them apparently in silent prayer and meditation, whereas others are engaged in conversation with an intimate friend. Some even dare to walk right up to the figure of Christ, often to kneel and pray. On a few occasions during the course of an evening, visitors ask for a confidential talk with the minister or the deacon. In the first two years 342 such talks happened.
Most of the activities take place in silence. But the Night Church concept also includes artists - particularly musicians - who are invited to participate in the events. In co-operation with the minister they contribute to the service (see below), and they are allowed to use the Cathedral for their own quest into the relationship between art and the Holy. For example, a rap singer has elaborated on themes such as prayer, the cross, and surrender. One of our regular saxophone players prefers to walk around in the Cathedral, while the flute player usually stands in the first floor galleries. On one occasion the singers improvised, alternating song from the second-floor galleries across the room. The general idea is to encourage the musicians to develop their own dialogue with God. Accordingly, we eschew the traditional notion of church concerts, where the church is used as a venue for an artistic performance only.
Every evening we have a thirty minute service. We have tried a number of different formats for these services. Now each evening in the week, has its own profile. On Thursdays we celebrate Holy Communion with port and real bread. We form a semi-circle around the minister, and each person passes the bread to the next person, saying “This is the body of Jesus Christ”, while the minister serves the wine. In the service on Fridays musical elements alternate with readings from the Bible, the reading of a poem, a short reflection on the readings, a prayer, five minutes of silence, “The Lord’s Prayer”, a salutation to peace, and finally a blessing. On Sundays the service starts with a Taizé song and then we have 15 min. of silence around the cross on the floor, with a Bible meditation. On Thursdays and Fridays we also have a short midnight prayer service, where the personal prayers are read aloud which the visitors have had the opportunity to write throughout the evening.
At the end of the evening all the small tables, writing desks, the cross on the floor etc. are put back into the cupboards and the staff gathers for a glass of beer and an informal evaluation of the evening.
So far we have been reluctant to
advertise the Night Church. Its existence is mainly spread by word of
mouth. Visitors can receive a small monthly newsletter, which is also
distributed by e-mail. Some may also have found information about us on
our website: www.natkirken.dk
The ideas and visions for the Night Church project have developed gradually as a result of our practical experiences. Something unexpected may happen in the course of an evening, new perspectives emerge, new reflections and a new practice is born. When the Night Church project started in 1999 the idea was to provide an open and quiet church punctuated by a short service. Today, however, we envisage the entire evening as an extended service. The long stretches of time when “nothing happens” are part - and a most appreciated part - of the service. The Night Church thus becomes a refuge from everyday life with its career pressures and constant demands for personal achievement.
Several visitors have expressed their gratitude for this dimension of the Night Church (see below). The message that many a minister tries to convey to his congregation in elaborate ways, namely, that we do not need to perform or do anything to receive the love of Christ, is replaced by a personal experience that grows out of the simple practice of “doing nothing” - just being, in the calm.
The noise generated by today’s information and media society has turned people’s attention to the blessing of quietness. Similarly, the common experience of a normative vacuum in today’s society has contributed to a revival of ritual. We wish to develop credible rituals. Credibility is bound up with resonance and the content and mode of expression in the rituals and the service must therefore resonate with the individual’s perception of holiness and sense of the fundamentals of life. That is, the service must resonate with the visitor’s need to find a suitable vocabulary, a direction of mind, and a spiritual context for his or her search. Our task is to find modes of expression that are credible to the individual visitor and which provide a space for dialogue - a dialogue that (post)modern man expects to be a natural part of the state of being together, with other human beings as well as with God.
Many of our visitors can be characterized as “seekers”, and we consider it one of our primary aims to establish a dialogue with this group of people. In order to enter into a dialogue with “seekers”, however, we must meet them on their own terms. A well-known graffiti says that “Jesus is the answer, but what was the question?” In other words, there is no point trying to preach the gospel if we cannot see our visitors’ distress and if we cannot give them an opportunity to articulate their own questions. To “see” somebody does not necessarily imply accepting everything he or she says, rather to be “seen” also includes being contradicted and corrected. But whether we agree with our visitor or contradict him, his sense of having been seen is a necessary condition for his being affected.
The churches often denounce today’s
cultural and social phenomena of temporariness and individuality. In the
Night Church project we have chosen to view temporariness and individuality
both as an unavoidable condition of post-modernity and as phenomena with
a potential positive value for the future. The Night Church apparently
appeals to individualists, those who consider it more important to make
their own decisions than to fit into a group of believers. It appeals
to men and women who do not necessarily believe what the minister says
just because her or she is ordained, but who maintain that personal trustworthiness
is essential for human contact and a true dialogue.
In our experience, the Night Church is a place where people rediscover the church as holy and spacious. A space into which an individual can enter and find his own place and position. A space that allows the visitors to do things that they may feel are too private to express during an ordinary service - like kneeling, crying, closing their eyes and calming down, or articulating cries for help or jubilant thanks to God.
Finally - we wish to catechize, meaning that we want to act as guides into the Christian tradition. The staff of the Night Church can offer guidance and an introduction into the richness of the Christian tradition, and we can show the visitors what our own personal way looks like. But the tradition has, as we all know, many routes, and every one of us must find our own. In the end we are all pilgrims and beggars.
About the authors:
Inger Ravn is employed as a Deacon in the Night Church by the Parish Council of the Cathedral of Copenhagen. She has an MA in Religious Studies and Communication Studies from the University of Copenhagen.
Thomas Söderqvist is an historian of medicine who had worked as a volunteer in the Night Church.
Selected quotations from
the guest-book of the Night Church
“It’s so Good that you run the night church. It’s balm for the soul” (28 January, 2000)
“The Night Church idea is so beautiful. I find simplicity, calmness and beauty which makes me feel the divine” (31 January, 2000)
“Thank you for the break. For the first time in many years, I felt the presence of God as true delight, because I relaxed and let the holy spirit take over. Praise the Lord” (26 March, 2000)
“It’s unbelievably beautiful to meet this QUIETNESS, this SPACE in the night. I will put the Cathedral high on my agenda in the years to come” (7 April, 2000)
“It’s a beautiful thing to do for us. I fell welcome, accepted and respected. A rare feeling in my everyday life. Thanks (28 April, 2000)
“Maybe its not a question of believing or not-believing, but whether faith believes in us or not? It’s just a question. I feel enriched” (7 July, 2000)
“A really good idea. Attractive and safe atmosphere - even for a pagan like me. I’ll be back!” (9 July, 2000)
“It’s really as if I can feel God in here. This church has a big place in my heart. It’s been a great experience to see it and meet the night. I hope you will continue” (21 July, 2000)
“Many thanks for a wonderful and overwhelming experience, I almost feel that God has somewhat delivered me tonight. This is not the last time I come here, if you continue to make such beautiful arrangements. Lots of thanks” (21 July, 2000)
“The Night Church! The best move in the history of the Danish Church for a long time – that’s the spirit” (23 July, 2000)
“I have missed something like this for a long time - without knowing it was here” (30 July, 2000)
“In great gratitude over having experienced a spiritual space put at my disposal. This is the most important thing we can teach each other; to be at disposal and to support. Thanks for letting me experience it” (4 August, 2000)
“Thanks for the Night Church. It has become an indispensable part of my life because I live in the downtown area and try to find some peace from the weekend’s tumult. What a contrast!” (11 August, 2000)
“I must admit that I have never felt so close to God as when I came here. I felt love. Thanks for letting me have this experience”(11 August, 2000)
“Thanks for the peace and the forgiveness” (1 September, 2000)
“Hello! What a cool church.
God is present here. God loves you” (8 September, 2000)
Following the traces of God in this World
We participants from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria resembling members of the Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox Catholic and Protestant families of churches in this region, came together in Aleppo, Syria, from 2-8 June 2002, to reflect and share on our common witness in “Sharing the Good News in the Middle East”.
The strong interest in the seminar by the Heads of Churches in Syria, His Holiness Patriarch Mar Ignatius Zakka I Iwas (Syrian Orthodox) and His Beatitude Ignatius IV Hazim (Greek Orthodox) which was expressed by receiving a delegation of the group prior to the seminar, encouraged us very much in our work.
We were hosted by the World Council of Churches in collaboration with the Middle East Council of Churches building the space for our sharing and reflections. Together we entered into the process of “mutuality of learning in fellowship” for which we are very grateful.
We have been overwhelmed by the hospitality and kindness of the local churches, in particular the Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Evangelical, Syrian Catholic, the Armenian Orthodox, the Armenian Catholic, Greek Orthodox and last but not least the Armenian Evangelical who offered its premises as the space for our meeting and deliberations.
“Where he is….”, this motto from the concert by the “Youth for Christ”, organized by the hosting church, which we attended right at the outset of our meeting, gave the direction of our search for a better and more meaningful service in “Sharing the Good News” in the Middle East.
We thank God for the experience
We take along with us
In the midst of all our sharing and experience, we heard with great grief and shock about the dam accident of Zeyzoun / Northern Syria, not only destroying the precious resource of accumulated water people need for living and farming, but their homes, and neighbourhoods. We offered our prayers for the victims of this catastrophy and were grateful to hear about the efforts done by the ecumenical family of churches, through Action by Churches Together (ACT), World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), to contribute to healing and restoring community by means of sending material relief to the area and people concerned.
As we learned during the first days of our seminar about the destruction of an Orthodox church in Ram Allah / Palestine, it recalled in us, that Sharing the Good News is centrally hindered in this region as long as there is no justice done to the Palestinians and the violence against places of worship, wherever, is stopped.
In the search for God’s traces in this world the look out for “where He is…” in the service to share what we have experienced as the loving, saving Grace of God in Jesus Christ, we promise to each other not only to stay together, but to pray for each others service, the people for whom each of us serve and for God’s guidance for our work through the Holy Spirit.
The participants of The Aleppo