If you drive the German highways, chances are you'll see a sign indicating you are approaching an Autobahnkirche, a highway church. During my trip to Germany in July, I passed several of these signs and decided to stop and see for myself what a highway church is all about.
Highway churches were started in the late 1960s through local or regional initiatives. Germany's 37 highway churches and chapels span from the far northern city of Rostock on the Baltic Sea to the southern part of Germany outside of Munich. (See the map of highway churches at www.autobahnkirche.de.) The Autobahnkirchen are usually located near service stations or rest areas for gas, food and lodging. They comprise Protestant, Roman Catholic and ecumenical places of worship and rest. Several more sites are under construction or in the planning stage.
As "service areas for the soul," highway churches attract many visitors, especially during the summer holiday period as well as Christmas and Easter. The number of visitors has been estimated at about 1 million annually, according to the Academy for Brotherhood Aid in Kassel. Studies and surveys have shown that a third of visitors are members of a church. About two-thirds of visitors are considered either unchurched or they maintain a distant relationship with the church.
A number of the highway churches have large buildings; others are small chapels or spaces for meditation and prayer. The larger churches offer worship services for the local congregation as well as for travel groups and visitors. This may also include concerts, Easter vigils, Taizé-style services, evening prayers and the like. Special worship opportunities are offered for truckers and motorcycle riders. The small chapels offer space for quiet, prayer and rest for body, mind and soul. In some chapels no more than 10 people can gather.
As I entered the Roman Catholic highway church of St. Christopher's (the patron saint of travelers) near Baden-Baden (close to the German-French border), I was immediately taken by the quiet — quiet for eyes and ears. I was able to leave behind the craziness of high-speed driving one has to deal with on German highways. I sat on a simple bench, looked at the altar. It was a most inviting space for contemplation and relaxation. Within a few minutes, the tranquility of the room let me settle down, and I began to pray.
On another trip I visited the Maria (patron saint of travelers) highway church between Munich and Stuttgart. A guest book showed many entries and prayers for loved ones, remarks about world events or petitions for God's peace for an upcoming business meeting. After "refueling" there with peace and strength, I resumed my journey in a much more relaxed and calm manner, which also contributes to road safety.
The names of some of the highway churches are worth sharing: Maria along the way; Jesus, Bread of Life chapel; Emmaus chapel; Light along our way; St. Peter and St. Benedict church. The responsibility for upkeep, worship or other events at highway churches rests with the local community and/or congregation.
When you travel to Germany and ride along the highway, look for the Autobahnkirchen signs. Germany's highway churches invite you to recharge and relax. You will find them to be a most inviting and spiritual space.
© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers