Central Presbyterian, New York City, USA

Central Presbyterian, New York City, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Central Presbyterian, New York City
Location: USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 30 June 2024, 10:00am

The building

Central Presbyterian Church, at 539 Park Avenue, is an impressive Neo-Gothic stone building, seven stories tall. The church was built by John D. Rockefeller as Park Avenue Baptist Church, with the famous Harry Emerson Fosdick as its pastor. When the congregation outgrew the space, the building was sold to the Presbyterians, who renamed it Central Church. The first service took place in 1929. Two balconies overlook the nave; the church seats 700.

The church

Central Presbyterian began to decline in the 1970s and continued to shrink until 2006, when the church made a significant commitment to rejuvenate the congregation and pursue its mission of renewal, proclaiming the gospel to the neighborhood and the city. Central is now flourishing.

The neighborhood

Central Presbyterian is indeed centrally located in an elegant neighborhood on Park Avenue.

The cast

The senior minister preached and presided at Holy Communion. An unidentified person led some prayers and the confession. A sextet of musicians played. A septet of singers formed a choir who stood behind the altar table. Four laypersons distributed the bread and wine.

What was the name of the service?

Worship Service.

How full was the building?

Mostly full, approximately 350, including many children. The congregation was young, with families and singles.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A friendly woman handed us a program and asked if we needed one in large print – perhaps we look presbyopic! The minister shook our hands at the peace.

Was your pew comfortable?

The wooden pews were comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

It was a time of bustling anticipation. A lot was going on. Some people practised their instruments; some greeted each other; the minister adjusted his audio equipment.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Good morning. I am Jason Harris.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Printed order of worship and Bible (the English Standard Version). Hymnals were in the pew racks but never used. The printed bulletin was helpfully annotated with commentary in the left margin of each page. It explained, amplified, and gave information about liturgical content and practice.

What musical instruments were played?

Piano, drums and cymbals, two violins, a cello, something that hummed (maybe a harmonium), all closely adjacent to each other in a front corner of the nave.

Did anything distract you?

Many things were distracting. 1. Two antennae right behind the altar table with no discernible function. 2. While the choir swung and swayed, a singer in the front row rolled her eyes and expressed considerable emotion. 3. The passing of the peace was very lengthy and chatty with lots of movement; we felt left out! 4. Congregants held coffee cups in the pews during worship, and we wondered where they stored the cups when they were not drinking.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Definitely happy-clappy. The congregation seemed to know the hymn tunes, although we did not, and since the music was not printed, we had difficulty singing. None of the participants were vested, and all of them dressed informally.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

32 minutes. The first section was preached from the pulpit, then the Gospel was read. After more sermon, the preacher moved to the space behind the communion table.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

7 — The preacher spoke easily without using his notes. He related well to the congregation and was very upbeat. However, the microphone amplification was excessive and his pace was quite rapid.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

First part: Charles Taylor’s understanding of our secular age, in which God is but one choice among many. Second part: Jesus has the power to make us whole; do we want to be healed or to remain the way we are? If we want to be healed, we must choose Jesus and not rely on an excuse. Third part: Jesus heals us at this table. If you are baptized and not in a state of sin, come and receive the bread and wine. Neither the sermon nor the whole liturgy acknowledged the current political dissent in our nation, nor the Gay Pride march in the city outside our doors.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The pastor knelt down in the midst of the gathered children and prayed for them.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The rapid-fire pace of the liturgy and the spoken prayers was exhausting, and it often made the words hard to understand. The service did not feel reverent.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

We stood for our 5 minutes at coffee hour. Everyone spoke to each other but not to us.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

We didn’t know how to get in line for coffee, but we could see urns and snack packages and small muffins.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

1 — This congregation is a blessing to this city, but it is not of a style that is appealing to us.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes. We are excited to see so many young people and children gathered to worship and learn and grow in faith and service.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The minister kneeling at the blessing of the children.

Photo by Christina Harford under CC BY-SA 4.0

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