St John's, Northfield, Minnesota

St John's, Northfield, Minnesota, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Forradal
Church: St John's
Location: Northfield, Minnesota, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 31 December 2006, 10:45am

The building

The church is a red brick structure similar to many from the early 1900s. The fortress-like exterior seems to offer a refuge from everyday life. Inside, the sanctuary has been nicely renovated, reflecting modern day liturgical usage.

The church

Founded by Norwegian immigrants, the parish appears to have a mixture of all ages: retired, middle-aged, young couples with small children. There was a sense of being with people who work, live and worship together. They sponsor a large number of ministries, including prayer and Bible study groups, men's and women's groups, knitters, quilters, and several young people's groups. A multi-page insert to the bulletin detailed all the parish activity for the month. It looks like a very busy place.

The neighborhood

Northfield is a small city 40 miles from the Minneapolis/St Paul metroplex, but still it is not a bedroom community by any standards – not yet, anyway. Although the city's economic fortunes have changed over the years, many of the downtown buildings are reasonably well-preserved examples of late 19th/early 20th century architecture. The church is located in an older section of the city with a large variety of well kept, tidy homes. If there had been snow on the ground the day of my visit, it would have felt like walking into a Norman Rockwell illustration. Northfield hosts several institutions of higher learning, including St Olaf College. The world famous St Olaf Choir began in 1911 as an outgrowth of St John's church choir. Oh! A bit of history here also. On September 7, 1876, the outlaw Jesse James tried to rob the First National Bank of Northfield but was thwarted by a band of armed citizens. The bank still conducts business to this day and has on display a pistol used in the robbery attempt. (For many years the skeleton of one of the James Gang members was also on display.)

The cast

The Rev. Mark Johnson, one of three pastors serving the church, presided. The Rev. John Quam, another of the pastors, preached. The clergy were assisted by Sylvia Erickson, cantor; Audrey Moe, lector; and Ruth Ferguson, organist.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Communion, Setting 4

How full was the building?

The building seemed about 80 percent full with approximately 500 worshippers.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

As I entered, an usher greeted me and handed me the worship pamphlet. Then five other individuals of varying ages welcomed me with warm, genuine smiles.

Was your pew comfortable?

Standard, fairly comfortable seating.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

This was very interesting! A large number of the worshippers seem to have their arrival timed down to the half-minute mark. I arrived as the bell begin to toll (five minutes early) and found the sanctuary only 30 percent occupied and the atmosphere quiet and reverential. But as the service began, members continued to arrive during the presiding pastor's introductory remarks, the rite of confession, and opening hymn. I wonder if this is the way business appointments are also handled in Northfield.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"The Lord be with you" by the presiding pastor. The pastor welcomed and greeted the congregation, gave a few brief parish announcements, and then continued with the invocation and rite of confession.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Lutheran Book of Worship was used for the hymns. The worship bulletin contained the order of service, which eliminated thumbing back and forth in the hymnal.

What musical instruments were played?

Only the organ. A grand piano was up front but not used. The church also has a handbell choir, but they did not take part in the service.

Did anything distract you?

It was nice to see the number of very young babies, and yes, a few did fuss. The parents quickly left without the baby's fussing causing undue distraction. In fact, the attitude of the older worshippers seemed to be "been there, done that!" Unfortunately, one elderly man became ill during the prayers. The ushers very discreetly assisted him with a wheelchair, causing minimal fuss. I had the feeling that all those close by were adding a silent prayer for the elderly gentleman.

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

The members of this parish relish traditional Lutheran liturgy. A standard Lutheran worship rite was used, but worship was neither lethargic nor rote. These folks seemed to enjoy being at worship! And they can really, really sing! The organist took advantage of the fact that they didn't need much melodic support from her to indulge in improvisations to add depth and interest to the hymns and chanting.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

12 minutes.

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

9 – The preacher was a senior member of the clergy, but his enthusiasm and spontaneity kept listeners of all ages tuned to his message. He seemed to have the gift of offering ample reflection with the fewest number of words.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The sermon was based on the Gospel reading for the day – Luke 2:41-52. Mary and Joseph lost young Jesus in the crowd (all parents shudder at the thought) only to find him the temple. Pastor Quam reflected on the slightly different translations from over the centuries, but all pointing to Jesus beginning his divine ministry. Jesus was growing and becoming one with his Father. We, like him, have the opportunity to grow in wisdom and faith every minute of each day. Church is not about "do I have to," but rather "I want to." In short, the church isn't someplace to hide. Though we all need a shelter on occasion, the church is a place to be recharged and grow.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

There was no choir at worship. There were five choirs listed in the bulletin (from very young to adult) but apparently they were taking a rest from Christmas activity. This congregation really didn't seem to need a choir, even though the Christmas hymn tunes were not your standard overplayed ditties. I suspect that many musicians would love to assist in worship with a congregation like this. And the organist was excellent. She chose registrations that complemented exquisitely each hymn or liturgical part. She saved the richest registration for the sanctus, during which the very walls seemed alive with her playing and the congregation's singing! Added to this mix was the fine chanting of the presiding minister and the lay cantor. As a footnote, even Bach was given his turn that day!

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

I guess I'm a bit of a curmudgeon – do so many people really have to wait until the last minute to arrive for worship? Our secular lives often reflect such scheduling limits. Does it really have to happen on Sunday morning also? After a busy week, I relish a few quiet minutes before worship to get focused. Maybe I just take longer than some people!

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

Everyone seemd headed home for Sunday lunch.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none at this service, but I understand that they do have a social hour after the earlier services. Given the cordial welcome, I didn't really miss the post-worship visiting.

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

9 – I wish I lived closer. But I vowed to return the next Sunday, when the St Olaf Choir would be making an appearance. Match this congregation and the organist with that choir – well, the roof should levitate!

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

Very much so! Norwegian Lutherans in Minnesota are supposed to be quite reserved – but not here at worship. I came away with the impression that the clergy and parishioners see themselves as equal members of a living, active, growing, caring faith community.

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

Several items: the parish singing, the wonderful sanctus, the reflective sermon, and a sense that everyone was offering a silent prayer for the sick elderly gentleman. One extra item: there were many youngsters of all ages attending – very nice to see and experience.

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