First Congregational, Evanston, Illinois, USA

First Congregational, Evanston, Illinois, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: First Congregational
Location: Evanston, Illinois, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 December 2005, 10:00am

The building

This is a lovely neo-colonial edifice designed by the noted Chicago firm of Tallmadge and Watson and completed in 1927, the third church (two previous were destroyed by fires) on the same site. The whole building is brick and limestone and has a very satisfying solid feel, more like a Wren church than American colonial, which I usually find more creaky and clapboard-ish. The interior, of white and pale blue-gray plaster and millwork, is similarly beautiful, with nothing jarring. The clear arched windows look out onto trees and are set high enough to limit distraction while making the place suitably luminous. An attractive wood paneled chapel is reached from doors on either side of the sanctuary. A social hall fills most of the basement.

The church

The Congregational Church, as a denomination, is a bastion of mainline Protestant liberalism, and this congregation is solidly in that company. People are welcomed and affirmed regardless of religious background, age, ability, race, sexual orientation or national origin. There is no formal statement of belief. Each member church is governed autonomously by its own council. First Congregational of Evanston sponsors many volunteer and outreach programs.

The neighborhood

The church's columned portico and steeple face onto a real village green. In the immediate neighborhood are two other churches and a former church converted into a performing arts venue, in the leafy idyll that is Evanston. Northwestern University sits a few blocks north, and Lake Michigan a couple of blocks to the east. Even with snow on the ground, the aura is one of goodness and well-being, with just the right scale and mix of commercial, residential and green space. This is the sort of place where you dream of living.

The cast

The Rev. Thomas ES "Ted" Miller, senior minister and preacher; David Lornson, director of music.

What was the name of the service?


How full was the building?

A bit disappointing, about 20 percent full, so maybe a touch over 100. I wasn't sure of the exact seating capacity, but it is probably something around 600 including the balcony. Apparently, like in so many other churches, no one is allowed to sit in the first three pews.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes, ushers said good morning and handed me a very nice service sheet with inserts detailing special Christmas seasonal services and social events. There was a handshake of peace, but it was polite, and not over-eager.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes, very nice wood pews, white painted, trimmed with dark wood matching the colonial revival interior.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The atmosphere was as quiet and controlled as could be expected with a number of smaller children present.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Please stand if you are able for the call to worship."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A hard bound Congregational hymnal. There were pew Bibles and a hymnal supplement, but I didn't use the former (although page numbers were given), and we were not called on to open the latter.

What musical instruments were played?

First Congregational's three-manual 1927 EM Skinner pipe organ, well maintained, and suited to the pleasant but not overly live acoustics. The adult choir seemed to have some paid section leaders. The sound of the choir was really quite good for a smallish congregation, but slightly marred by too many wide vibratos (to my ear).

Did anything distract you?

Just before things got started, a gentleman sat down two pews up whom I thought I recognized as a counterman from my neighborhood deli several miles away. I was sure my cover would be blown. But he turned out to be a different fellow after all.

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

Heartfelt Protestantism. It wasn't a liturgical service, but pretty traditional in its format and music. Like Presbyterians, they wait to stand for a hymn until just before they have to sing, and sit for pretty much everything else.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

The children's sermon (which was better than some I have heard) was 5 minutes and the adult sermon was 20 minutes.

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

7 – Pastor Miller was quite listenable but not really memorable.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The gospel reading was the annunciation story from Luke, and Pastor Miller expanded considerably on this, describing how startling it would be for someone of Mary's gender, age and class to be addressed by anyone outside of her immediate family, let alone by an angel. He talked about other encounters with angels in scripture, and said that God's greatest blessing is his being with us.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I would have to say the beauty of the setting took first place, even though the music, sermon and welcoming feeling were just fine.

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

An awkward moment came at the start of the children's sermon, when the pastor invited children to come forward and no one budged. Finally, with a little prodding from their parents, four or so pre-schoolers made their way to sit in the front pew (otherwise empty of course). I expect that a Sunday school class might handle this age group better than a children's sermon. Done this way, it seemed more like it was aimed at their parents. I found myself wondering how young a child has to be in order not to feel on the spot or patronized.

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

Wouldn't you know, someone in the choir recognized me and came barreling out to greet me and to catch up. When he retired to get out of his choir robes, I beat a hasty retreat downstairs to the social hall.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Nice hot coffee, juice, and some coffee cake things. Members were pleasant and said hello, but I wasn't really engaged in conversation – until, that is, my friend from the choir reappeared.

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

6 – This church has all the ingredients to please, provided you like a sort of mainline Protestant (non-Eucharistic) worship and live in the Evanston (or North side of Chicago) area. Still, as the airlines always say at the end of a flight, "we know you have many choices..."

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

Sure. I understand that mega-churches and places with more modern worship forms may be causing membership in churches like this one to languish. I hope that isn't true or that it reverses itself.

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

Enjoying the nice Advent hymns in this beautiful setting with the soft winter daylight streaming in through the large windows.

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