First Church of Christ
First Church of Christ, Wethersfield CT
July 21, 2002
Welcome to Crystal Cathedral East. The comparison is encouraged by the church’s linkage with the Hour of Power, from the Anaheim CA church. The bulletin accompanying the order of worship touts First Church as “the largest and one of the most vital Congregational-UCC churches in New England!” It lives up to its self-billing. Lots of people, casually dressed in the latest LL Bean and Joseph A Banks fashions, a homogeneous white (I counted three people of color present in the congregation of 300) middle class congregation. Young families were leaving as we were arriving. An 8 AM WIND (Worship in New Dimensions) preceded the 10:30 AM “traditional” service. Every personal and familial need is provided for, hearing assists, baby-sitting, large print bulletins, children’s coloring bulletins, extra seating, you name it, First Church will get it for you.
Dr Robert Schuler would be proud of his imitators. The music was very professional. The worship space, a New England meetinghouse complete with boxed pews, was attractively appointed… and air-conditioned. The preacher spelled out five practical applications of her theme on how to be free from the tyranny of time, just the way sermons do in Anaheim. The regular members heeded the exhortation in the bulletin: “Before you leave, enthusiastically greet those around you.”
Little wonder the church is a beehive of activity, with five ordained ministers, a church administrator, and a Minister of Music and the Arts. There are seven different emphases in ministries: Youth, Music and the Arts, Singles, Prayer, Couples, Men, and Women. You name the crisis in your life (divorce, joblessness, sickness, high blood pressure, grief) and First Church has something for you.
Then why, I ask myself, did I find the experience at this church unsatisfying? Some might suggest it’s envy, and I wouldn’t too strenuously deny I felt a few such twinges. But I think it has more to do with the hourglass on the high pulpit. It stands there, a relic from the distant past of Puritan New England when the minister was the parson and he preached the word of God twelve feet above contradiction. The hourglass, no longer used I note, kept his exhortations within tolerable limits. Now that artifact of centuries past continues in its perch because of its aesthetic value. Like the candled chandeliers, four of them, which are treasures in their own right, but hardly functional: were they to be lit, the volunteer fire department would snuff them out quicker than you can say, “Cotton Mather.” Amidst all of the beauty, all of the perfection of pastoral care, I detected a whiff of superficiality. A certain confusion of success with faithfulness, and enthusiasm with conviction. An emphasis upon excitement at the expense of truthfulness. My soul was just not touched very deeply. Everything from Call to Worship to Benediction was done exceedingly well, with the very best taste. But not once did I feel an inner compulsion to say an “Amen.” I doubt I will return. I simply must have authenticity and depth in my religion!
But Barbara (I am her husband) found the morning delightful, worth another visit.
Here are the categories according to which I would measure the effectiveness of the worship.
Building: not a cathedral, but a meeting house, a very large meeting house, in which one clearly gets the message that the message is primary, what with the very high pulpit and its large hexangular sounding board hung from the ceiling. The Reformed tradition was never more nobly or beautifully rendered. No one in the congregation was very far from the pulpit: the auditorium was what the computer printer calls “landscape,” the pulpit situated in the center of one of the long walls. The design reminded me of the Dutch Reformed Church in which we worshiped in Delft, Holland. Yet everything was up-to-date in Wethersfield, and modern conveniences like audio and A/C were tastefully camouflaged.
Music: a guest organist played and accompanied, but I suspect he was instructed, if he needed to be, to make his selections classically sacred. They were: Clerambault, Bach, Mendelssohn, and Buxtehude… not exactly, in my experience, the auditory fare of LL Beaners, other than me. Two hymnals were used, one traditional, the other gender-sensitive. A soloist, with an operatic style, sang, somewhat too intensely, “Sound His Praise,” what I took to be a composition from recent antiquity.
Bible: the text was two short verses from Joshua, about the sun standing still. I have no distinct recollection of it being read, but the order of worship would indicate it was. Which version was used, I’m not sure, but my guess would be NRSV.
Sermon: the preacher was an associate minister. The Senior Minister, I assume, was in the middle of his two month R & R, as is the rule in large, multi-pastored churches with an emphasis on preaching. The associate was engaging, with a colloquial style, but as she spoke I kept hearing an echo of Arianna Huffington, what with the preacher’s slurring of “th’s,” not so much an impediment as a curiosity. My guess is that English was not her first language, although she has clearly mastered its use. I would only observe about the sermon that a message rarely rises above its central theme. Her theme, being a very personal one, dealing with stress, hardly touched upon the grandest theme of the Gospel, grace. The cross was not raised to free us from ulcers and high blood pressure. The unused hour glass at the preacher’s left hand seemed to suggest something was amiss.
Children: more than adequate provision is made for the young of years. The earlier service may have incorporated a children’s message, but none was listed in the order of worship. Careful instruction was provided in the notes for what to do with obstreperous twins, which instruction, thankfully, was not needed by our entourage. This service was A (as in Adult) rated, not C.
Welcome: the parishioner who found herself in the box pew with us was most gracious and welcoming. She realized we were visitors and invited us to return. But the church is so big, I’ve got to believe no one really knows who is new and who isn’t. The leadership clearly understands this problem and works mightily to mitigate it. I refused to wear a “Visitor” badge, and we made our escape forthwith for a hearty brunch at McDonald’s, with only a smile from another driver with whom I played a brief game of Alphonse and Gaston.
Rating: two and a half haloes. Barbara would give it four.