First Presbyterian, Paducah, Kentucky, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: First Presbyterian
Location: Paducah, Kentucky, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 19 April 2020, 10:45am

The building

The congregation was formed in 1842 and met in members’ homes and later in the county court house. Their present building is their third and was dedicated in 1933. It is a pleasant, churchy looking structure of stone. Inside, the eye is drawn to the magnificent tracker organ gracing the east wall. A communion table sits in front of the organ, with pulpit to the left.

The church

They sponsor groups for adults, children and youth, most of which are paused during the current health crisis. They participate in a number of local ecumenical ministries.

The neighborhood

Paducah, a small city in western Kentucky, is located at the confluence of the Tennessee and the Ohio Rivers. It is a pleasant, cultured city with (in normal times) a thriving restaurant, cultural and nightlife scene. In the early days of the Broadway theater, new shows would often be ‘tried out’ in cities such as Paducah before opening in New York, and the expression ‘Will it play in Paducah?’ is still sometimes heard to mean whether a new concept is viable or not. Paducah was the birthplace in 1900 of John T. Scopes, who went on to teach school in Dayton, Tennessee, where in 1925 he was convicted of teaching evolution in violation of Tennessee law, in a trial that was to become known as the Scopes Monkey Trial. His conviction was overturned on a technicality, but the law remained in effect until 1967. The trial was memorialized in the film Inherit the Wind, starring Spencer Tracy and Frederic March. First Presbyterian Church is located in downtown Paducah not far from the riverfront.

The cast

The pastor, assisted by the organist, a cantor and a reader.

What was the name of the service?

Sunday Worship.

How full was the building?

The service took place in an empty church and was live-streamed via Facebook. The on-line counter stood at 41 at its highest moment.

Did anyone welcome you personally?


Was your pew comfortable?

My desk chair was quite adequate.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The organist played a quiet meditation.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Let us come together in our call to worship.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

None. So far as I could tell, there was no bulletin available for download. One would have been most welcome.

What musical instruments were played?


Did anything distract you?

I had to concentrate hard to understand what was being said. I switched from speaker to headphones, but that helped only marginally. I think if they used body mics instead of the mics intended for amplification in a full church, it would help considerably.

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

A quiet, dignified hymn sandwich. There was no communion service today, but the on-line video from Easter Sunday shows communion being celebrated.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

20 minutes.

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

10 — The pastor spoke clearly and animatedly, making good use of her hands. I really liked her message.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The pastor’s text was John 20:19-29 (the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples and to Thomas). ‘Peace be with you’ are the first, and most powerful, words that Jesus spoke to his disciples after his Resurrection. The disciples, like us today in the present crisis, had locked themselves in out of fear. Much of what they had known had been upended. But in the midst of their fear, Jesus met them. The entire story is written in the past tense except for Jesus’ greeting: ‘Peace be with you.’ What Jesus said then, he is saying today to us. By showing the disciples his wounds, he shared with them his identity: the risen Lord who has overcome death. Jesus is our peace; we cannot expect to have peace without him. The power of the Resurrection invites us into a new birth: the birth of salvation. Peace does not come from how easy or difficult it is to navigate our daily lives. It comes from the person of Jesus Christ. The world can never take that away from us. But we may not be feeling at peace just now – Thomas certainly wasn’t. Jesus understood that Thomas wanted his own encounter with Jesus, and so he let him experience it. The power of this story is in the love that Jesus shows us. What he activated in his disciples, he is still activating in us now. Let us pray for peace.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The music was lovely even though I couldn’t understand most of the words to the hymns – even the familiar ones (which, as a matter of fact, I don’t think were being sung to the familiar texts). And it was good to see a virtual church service being conducted in an actual church, by vested clergy, and with organ, even if the church had of necessity to be empty of congregation.

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

The cantor kept extending her hand, indicating that the congregation should join in the singing. However, there was no congregation, and without a bulletin we had no idea of what we at home were supposed to be singing.

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

The service ended rather abruptly, I thought, with a blessing and an organ recessional, after which the video feed suddenly cut off.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I had already had breakfast, and it was still too early for lunch (Phoenix is two hours behind Paducah this time of year), but I resolved to go out at lunchtime and find a good restaurant that has take-out, whereas I have been having lunch at home.

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

10 — This service was a pleasure to attend. It was a sober, no nonsense celebration, without unnecessary frivolity or false starts that, in my opinion, have marred some other virtual services I have watched.

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


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

That the disciples were as frightened then as we are now.

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