Newtown United Methodist Church
Newtown United Methodist Church, Sandy Hook, Connecticut
In late spring 1954 the District Superintendent of the New York District of the New York East Conference of the Methodist Church asked me to add another church to the one I was already serving in West Redding. The other church was about ready to fold and The Rev. Lewis H. Davis, destined to become my father-in-law, encouraged me with the promise that "when the church dies, Bob, you won't be blamed." One wintry Sunday that year the flame almost was extinguished, literally and figuratively. We spent the cold season in the basement hall, which was heated by a large pot-bellied coal stove. Six inches of snow had fallen the night before, and I could not, as was my habit, barrel across Connecticut in my Hudson Super Six. When at last Barbara and I arrived at the church, we found four women huddled around a dying furnace. The piano offertory lasted four bars. The sermon wasn't much longer. The benediction could have been a graveside committal.
But, lo and behold, forty-eight years later the little country church, now moved across the street, and connected to a modern parish house, is filled with people, most of them a lot younger than I. In God's economy of salvation (and it was economical: my pay was $10 a week!) I have been a link, albeit a very fragile one, in the survival and eventual thriving of a lighthouse for the kingdom.
As we glanced through the order of service, I gave a sigh, with the discovery that a month later than usual, the church would be observing Laity Day. The pastor was in Italy, doing what I wasn't told. Maybe he had an audience with the Pope. But the long Veteran's Day weekend must have been thought to be an appropriate time for a short sabbatical. The absence of the pastor did, however, have the advantage of showing off the strength and the vitality of the church's laity. I was impressed. Despite an occasional Connecticut hard "a," to be said through the nose, the worship leaders spoke with confidence and directness, as if they were all schoolteachers or lawyers.
Those of you who have read the chapters of my book on the pastorate published on this website will understand when I give central credit for the present success of this Christian witness to the senior pastor, Terry Pfeiffer. His congregants do. The church has a nursery school the pastor, if he didn't initiate it, certainly fostered. The God's House full of young people and their parents tells it all: get the children to come and the parents will follow. Something like that.
Building: a very simple meeting house almost totally bereft of adornments. The rookish steeple was missing two of its four stanchions. The entrance to the church has been modified since 1954: a canopied walkway leads to the front doors. I studied the interior for signs of the past. The raised pulpit was gone. The old foot-pumped organ, which prompted Mrs. Watkins to warn me to pick short hymns, has been replaced by a large electronic model with speakers behind the front wall disguised by framed cloth covers. The benches evidenced their age by being placed so tightly together as to bother a seventy year old man with bad knees. A rough hewn cross, made of what looked like four by fours, hung from the wall behind the pulpit. The windows were clear, and I could not resist looking to the one in the southwest corner of the room. There on a warm spring Sunday in 1954 we assisted a sparrow trapped in the sanctuary to gain release. If your heart is warmed by the grandeur of simplicity, you will want to visit this little church.
Welcome: very positive; and I had the distinct feeling that so many members of the congregation were themselves new that they assumed that we, being of mature age, must have been there longer than they. I wanted, oh so badly, for someone to ask me if I had ever worshiped in the church previously. I wanted to see their reaction when I reported that I had worshiped there every Sunday forty-eight years ago. But, of course, no one asked.
Children: when the gentleman in a gray flannel suit, the morning's designated preacher of the children's sermon, called the young Christians forward, he was nearly stampeded by one hundred small to middling-sized feet. He had a brown bag sermon, only in this church it's named the Mystery Box. The child, picked the week before to fill it with a prize, put in his baseball cards. The young congregation was surveyed for their favorite things. Among the collections celebrated was one boy's beetles... not Beatles. I don't recall the Gospel point of all this, but it was fun.
Music: the organist played the hymns so up-tempo I had trouble catching my breath. Maybe the rhythm of life in Connecticut is faster than on Long Island; or maybe its slow enough to make the organist feel the congregation needs to sprint to stay awake. The choir of men and women in nearly equal numbers sang "Blest Are They," by David Haas. Obviously it was a paraphrase of the Beatitudes. Still I would have liked to have had the text printed in the order of worship. My fancy was caught by the use of hymns as responses for prayers and offering and benediction. The idea, of course, is not new, but the variety and appropriateness of the hymns selected was pleasing. Gender sensitivity intruded on the wording of the Doxology, in which there were no references to the Father, the Son, or the Holy Ghost.
Sermon: while the preacher's away, the laity will play. Literally... the laity presented a dramatic enactment of "The Too Too Syndrome," inspired by the excuses Christians employ to avoid fulfilling their membership vows to be loyal to the church with prayers, presence, gifts, and service. Six incarnations of typical excuses went front and center and explained themselves. They were too busy, too tired, too dumb, too poor, too old, or too new to accept their responsibility for keeping the House of the Lord together. It was an amusing exercise, but I know one retired schoolteacher who found compelling the excuse offered by a woman in the same profession for not doing her duty. Like I have complained earlier: far better to accentuate the positive. Few people change their minds because they feel guilty. Instead, lift up the example of ordinary people who enthusiastically support the church's ministry in every way. It took me twenty years to learn the lesson a layperson whispered to me, that you catch more bees with honey than with vinegar. I now offer the wisdom free to anyone who will listen.
Other Items of Note: the lay speaker who acted as something of a master of ceremony, read from a paraphrase of the Bible, but he felt obliged to explain details that a plain reading of a true translation might have made unnecessary... the parable of the talents and the parable of the last judgment.
The "Passing of the Peace," a truly joyful and spontaneous interruption of the worship service, went on for what seemed five minutes. The organist regained our attention before pandemonium broke out. How much better to do the Peace quickly and save the fellowship for the Coffee Hour... of which there was none.
During the announcements, two teenage girls went to the pulpit and encouraged the congregation to participate in programs and a service project the youth fellowship had undertaken. They conducted themselves in such a way as to make me think there was nothing unusual about youthful Christians getting attention (without doing mischief!) in this church, a very strong sign of the church's vitality.
We lingered following the service. I hoped I might find someone who remembered. No luck. In fact, I heard myself providing historical facts and anecdotes about the church that a member for a quarter of a century had never known.
Rating: four haloes, four and a half, if I were a young father with a house full of children. Jesus said about true prophets, "By their fruits you shall know them." I have been around long enough to be able to read from the consequences perceived this Sunday morning that, in the words of the Book on this website, the church is being led by an "effective pastor."