First Lutheran, Galesburg, Illinois, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Kanzelaltar
Church: First Lutheran
Location: Galesburg, Illinois, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 4 April 2010, 9:30am

The building

The current church dates from the 1920s. It is in the Gothic style freely rendered. The exterior is clad in brick of a deep maroon color with dazzlingly white trim around the doors and windows. The interior is most impressive. The plan is basilican. The pier arcade transitions to tall clerestory windows and a wood beam ceiling. The nave is a grand and lofty space, but the chancel is fairly shallow. The east wall is dominated by a large window of Christ in majesty serenaded by angelic musicians. Below the window is an intriguing reredos. More about that later.

The church

The mid-1800s saw significant immigration of Swedes to western Illinois. Some were farmers while others settled in towns and cities such as Galesburg. They organized a Lutheran congregation in 1851 which became one of the largest and most prominent in the old Swedish Augustana Synod. Current membership is around 800. The local office of Lutheran Social Services of Illinois has space in the building. The handsome sanctuary serves as a venue for various concerts.

The neighborhood

Galesburg is a city of around 30,000. The population has declined somewhat in the last 30 years as several large manufacturing facilities have closed or moved overseas. Galesburg remains, however, a major railroad town with a large classification yard of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad. Eight Amtrak passenger trains stop in Galesburg each day. The city is also home to Knox College, a well regarded four-year liberal arts school (no, not named for the Scottish reformer). The college was the site of one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the famous series of encounters between senatorial candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858 that greatly raised the relatively unknown Lincoln's national profile, making him a viable candidate for election. Galesburg is also noted as the birthplace of Carl Sandburg, poet, journalist, folklorist, and biographer of Abraham Lincoln. Sandburg was baptized in First Lutheran's old building.

The cast

Presiding and preaching minister was the Revd Paul E. Johnson, pastor of the congregation, assisted by Merrily Sargent. The lector was Nick Michael. The organist and choir director was Bette Mohr. The acolytes were Danielle Diaz and Eric Cole. The names of the communion assistants were not listed.

What was the name of the service?


How full was the building?

The main floor of the church can seat at least 500. Although a few more folks could have been squeezed in here and there, the place was basically at capacity.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Two young girls were handing out bulletin at the entrance. I really did not expect a hearty welcome from them. When I sat down in my pew, the woman next to me smiled and wished me a happy Easter.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes, very. It had a nice cushion that made for happy sitting.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Bustling. Lots of movement with comings and goings and rearranging of who sits where. The time leading up to a festival service seems to generate an almost giddy sense of expectation.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Alleluia! Christ is risen!"

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Evangelical Lutheran Worship for liturgy and hymns. The Celebrate bulletin insert for psalmody and prayers.

What musical instruments were played?

A very ably played three manual Moeller pipe organ led the liturgy and singing of eight hymns (three during communion). Both prelude and postlude were appropriately jubilant. A grand piano (forgot to check the make) was used for the choir anthems.

Did anything distract you?

My eyes kept wandering back to the reredos. It is fairly long and low. The wood framework holds five depictions of the life of Christ: nativity, Jesus with Mary and Martha, Gethsemane, crucifixion, and resurrection. The general style and the deep, rich colors give the work a vaguely pre-Raphaelite sense. Following the service I learned that the reredos is made of pieces of opaque painted glass. Very striking, although perhaps out of scale with the rest of the building.

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

The service adhered faithfully to Setting 3 in the worship book. There was no attempt to re-invent the wheel. The congregation appears to be quite happy with the prescribed order of worship and sees no need for innovation. There was no freestanding demi-altar in addition to the main altar. The eucharistic prayer was said with the pastor facing the altar, back to the congregation. And you know, I didn't mind one bit. Another surprise was the peace. Pastor and congregation exchanged the greeting verbally and that was it. On to the offering. No 10-minute orgy of hugs and back rubs.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

14 minutes.

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

7 – A straightforward preaching style. Forceful without being strident. Down to earth. Nothing fancy.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The title of the sermon as shown in the bulletin was "Life Beyond Death – Now!" The pastor began by again announcing, "Christ is risen!" with the congregation responding, "He is risen indeed!" He then went on to say that he worries sometimes that this call and response is in danger of becoming a catch phrase, like saying "Bless you" after a sneeze. We cannot let Christ's resurrection become a commonplace affirmation. It is the linchpin of our faith and hope. We need to encounter the resurrection as something fresh and new, just as it was to the women at the tomb. We must be ready to ponder anew the reality of Christ's resurrection for our lives.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Singing "Jesus Christ is risen today," one of the all-time great hymns. We sang it as the closing hymn rather than as the opener, but it worked equally well and was a splendid way to conclude our worship.

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

Failing to notice a sign that read, "Caution – step down" at a side entrance leading into the church. I noticed the sign rather too late. I avoided falling but made a less than graceful entrance into the house of the Lord.

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

By the time the service ended, the woman who had been sitting next to me when I came in had changed places with another woman who had joined her. This second woman turned to me, extended her hand, introduced herself, and thanked me for worshipping at First Lutheran. I never even had time to practise looking lost.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I assume it was the same as that which was served prior to the service. The youth group was putting on an Easter breakfast both before and after the one service. I arrived early enough to grab a bite before going into the church. They were serving three different types of frittata along with assorted coffee breads plus juice, coffee and tea. There was a basket for a freewill offering on behalf of the youth group. I did not go back for seconds following the service.

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

8 – If I were to move to Galesburg, I believe First Lutheran could fit the bill quite nicely.

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

Very much so. A beautiful church well filled. Festive music. A dignified liturgy of Word and Sacrament to celebrate the Lord's resurrection. How could one not feel glad?

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

The intriguing and lovely altarpiece.

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