The Congregational Church of New Canaan
The Congregational Church of New Canaan (CT), February 5, 2012
He said to me, "Be kind." He had just discovered that Critical Christian was present and evaluating. We stood in the hall by the front door after the other worshipers had departed. We spoke for ten minutes or more. I had already explained to him that I was a spy for an ordained Congregational minister in Portland, Oregon, who had happened upon my website. "So you're the guy who's been going around rating worship services, checking out hymnals and other details," it dawned on The Rev. Harold Masbach III, known familiarly to friends and congregants as Skip. "Be kind," he requested.
It's easy to be kind:
when the prelude is played by a third grader and the composition is by Bartok;
when the preacher, like the Critical Christian, is a graduate of Williams;
when the choir sings "There Is a Balm in Gilead";
when the invitation to communion eschews boilerplate and finds felicitous, direct, concise, and compelling expression;
when the Doxology prefers theological accuracy to feminist argument and names the first person of the Trinity "Father" and the second "Son";
when I get to sing (some would say bellow) four hymns instead of the usual three or two; and
when the sermon evidences careful thought and faithful imagination, on a lection as familiar as the Lucan narrative of the paralytic whose friends lower him through a hole in the roof into the crowd around Jesus, "Try Another Door."
Other details of the morning service are noteworthy for their uniqueness and my hearty approval:
small silver chalices for each person receiving the cup, and ingenious if ancient receptacles on bench backs to hold them;
a different (if slightly) printed order of worship for each of the two "traditional" services, one at 9:30 and the other (which we attended) at 11:15;
an 8 AM contemplative (not contemporary, though I wondered whether the choice of name for it was tongue-in-cheek) service;
a Passing of the Peace in which we were encouraged from the pulpit to greet one another in ways with which we felt comfortable, and not necessarily with the traditional words; and
the expectation that following the benediction the congregation would remain in the pews through the Postlude.
Not that everything was Edenic. New Canaan worship had a few issues like, if not as severe, as the land from which it takes its name:
there was no pastoral (sometimes named "long") prayer, only a prayer of intercession in which the afflicted and their afflictions were cited, eliciting an audible gasp of surprise at one point; and
the attendance was meager, attributable to Super Bowl Sunday, and the draw of the earlier (9:30) traditional service at which there was an ingathering of a crowd of new members.
The senior pastor, Skip Masbach, was called to CofNC in 1992 to be the minister to youth. He was then 41, having been a litigator in a large D.C. law firm. Forty-one is an age at which most ordained clergy are ready to lay down their mastery of fun and games, and move on to the role of chief administrative officer for the kingdom. Pastor Masbach did eventually do that, but he did not relinquish his concern for or involvement with young Christians. The hallways of the parish house show it. The engagement of large numbers of New Canaan young people in mission around the country and around the world is further evidence: soon he will be going with 150 youth (mostly) group members to Biloxi MS for a "spiritual and material" revival of that Katrina-torn town. True to his original commitment, he is deeply involved in a special program at Yale Divinity School designing programs and curricula for adolescent Christians. He said to me there in the church hallway that he believed the biggest reason mainline Protestantism was losing members is its failure to provide faith formation for young people.
For fifty years in the pastorate I taught confirmands and supervised youth groups. I never articulated a reason why I, in terms of time allotment alone, considered that ministry so important. Ten years now in retirement, basking often in the return flow of affection from junior highs I shepherded along the way, I conclude Skip is onto something very important.
The Congregational Church of New Canaan flourishes. Yes, flourishing in all those numbers usually cited to prove it, dollars and crowds. Which success follows from and is not the reason for the depth and wideness of the church's ministry. The cup overflows at God's Acre. See for yourself at the church's website: God's Acre.
Rating: 4 haloes, probably 5 if we had gone to the 9:30 service.