Gottesdienst: A service of the Word as our forefathers knew it

Rev. Charles P. Schaum, the celebrant of the Gottesdienst service, speaks to the congregation at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023. (Cayla Grace Murphy)

CULLMAN, Ala. – As the community came together to celebrate Oktoberfest and the beginning of the city’s 150th anniversary this past weekend, dozens of community members stepped into the quiet sanctuary of St Paul’s Lutheran Church in the early afternoon hours on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023. Some had just left the Oktoberfest celebration, still donning lederhosen and Burgermeister medals; some drove in from out of town, narrowly avoiding fair parade traffic; some were dedicated members of Saint Paul’s itself, and were there because the doors were open. All were there to hear the Word as the city’s early founders knew it, with the invocation, sermon and accompanying hymns and scores delivered entirely in German. 

As the sun shone brilliantly through the sanctuary, illuminating bespoke stained glass on the walls, the choir rang out classic hymns accompanied by renowned pianist Mark Laverty on the organ. The music drew on Renaissance and Baroque periods. If you closed your eyes, you could swear you were in a Lutheran service in 1873 – which is just what Rev. John Bussman of St. Paul’s had in mind. 

“All of the liturgy, hymns, teaching and preaching at St. Paul’s for more than 50 years was in German. German was retained in our teaching even after we began to transition to English,” said Bussman. “Returning to the original language of the hymns we sang helped to recapture the cadence and intent of the likes of Martin Luther and Paul Gerhardt. It was certainly special to sing hymns and to hear the scriptures read and a sermon preached as the founding families would have heard!” 

Bussman shared that the return to the roots of St. Paul’s may come as a refreshing change to those in the business of saving souls, as many religious organizations struggle to keep up with the ever-changing trends of newer generations. 

“Things change around us so quickly. Many will do things on the basis of entertainment or ‘reach a new generation,’ but rarely do they find their foundation in the scriptures,” he said, noting that while the language of the service had changed, the liturgy – or, customary order of events – remained the same. “In hearing the liturgy in German, many of the people had to rely on the translations, but they could hear the music hadn’t changed. The structure of the liturgy was intact. The liturgy transcends time and language.” 

Bussman added that with St. Paul’s having such a large impact on the early religious culture of Cullman, and on Cullman as a whole, he has high hopes that this could be a cornerstone for those seeking a reprieve of rest and reflection, to slow down and return to Cullman’s roots during the fast-paced Oktoberfest celebration. 

“I would love for this to become a staple of Oktoberfest. St. Paul’s has been around since the earliest days, and we’d be honored to continue to shape our future in the years to come through the forgiveness of sins won on the cross by Jesus.” 

To learn more about St. Paul’s, including service times and future events, visit  

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