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578: Fourth Presbyterian, Chicago, USA
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Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chestnut Street at Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois  USA
Mystery Worshipper: Shy Town.
The church: Fourth Presbyterian, Chicago, Illinois, USA.
Denomination: Presbyterian Church.
The building: This is an impressive pre-World War One neo-gothic construction with a transverse chancel and a massive stone nave. The acoustics are pretty good but there isn't much reverb. Most of the design elements are in wood, including an intricately carved altar and a traditional covered pulpit. The baptismal font is of black marble. The strong cross-beams of the nave are underlaid with complementary shades of dark salmon and teal, accented by off-white cross designs. A great deal of cross symbolism is worked into the sanctuary inspite of the noticable lack of a mounted crucifix.
The church: Fourth Church is an affluent church but it's members should not all be stereotyped as rich. Certainly influential and powerful people worship, but so do locals and those who are drawn to the church for it's programmes. It is also a church with a falling average age of membership: A great many 25 to 35 year olds have joined in recent years. Children, however, just don't go to this service.
The neighbourhood: In 1914, when the church was consecrated, it lay at the northern end of a trail called Pine Street; above that were only a few foundries and marshes from Lake Michigan. Now the church is about the only structure on "Magnificent" Michigan Avenue that is not given over to high-end retailing, such as Niketown, Saks, Nieman-Marcus and an enormous Borders bookstore.
The cast: Joanna M. Adams, Pastor; Dana Ferguson, Associate Pastor for Mission; John M. Buchanan, Pastor.
What was the name of the service?
11.00am morning worship, 2 Pentecost.

How full was the building?
The sanctuary holds 1,200 and the 11.00am service always turns people away. Pity the poor tourist who happens along at 10.55am hoping for a seat toward the rear.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I came in from the wrong direction but received a warm handshake and a detailed bulletin from the usher. I was the first in my pew and received pleasant but reserved responses to my “Hello”’s.

Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was divided into two by an armrest; it was quite comfortable and the pew racks were extraordinarily well situated. The seat backs were a little straight, but nothing unusual.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People were still talking a little during the Prelude; but while there was no meditation there was no outright socialising, either. Coming late is not an option. Anyone less than five minutes early can't get in.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Bread of the world in mercy broken, wine of the soul in mercy shed . . ."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Presbyterian Hymnal and the New Revised Standard Version were used. There was also a user-friendly stapled booklet that included all the congregational responses, creeds, page numbers of Bible references and the staves of responses not in the hymnal.

What musical instruments were played?
An organ supported a professional choir of about 16. They seemed a little redundant – I'm not sure the church really needs a choir to interpret Richard Proulx's "Jesu, the Very Thought of Thee."

Did anything distract you?
There was a certain austerity and astringency of mood. Everything was so precisely coordinated that it would have been somewhat annoying if the overall atmostphere had been at all flamboyant or glamorous.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Everything was so well arranged and co-ordinated that you couldn’t see the strings showing. The house was packed, the congregation mostly men in suits and aging baby-boomers in khakis. I could relax back knowing that there were no theological or creedal custard pies waiting. If you’re going to be Presbyterian, this is the way to go, I think.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
Twelve minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Having heard a number of Pastor Buchanan's sermons, I was disappointed. Typically his sermons are though-provoking although not witty or flamboyant. This one was not challenging.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Psalm 46 was twisted into a metaphor of human preparedness of the inevitable. He slung together several only loosely connected components: We heard about September 11; his officiating at an elderly friend's funeral; a conscending reference to the self-help book "Who Moved My Cheese" and arrived at the conclusion that change is inevitable. It finished with the slightly Calvinistic point that all we can do as humans is to have the fortitude to do the best we can with what we have and face reality with the wisdon and understanding God has granted us.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The nave is an architectural blessing, but you have to let its understated qualities sneak up on you. Also, I got to sit next to half of that service's African-American attendance. He was very nice.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
This church has an adult membership of 5,800 and three morning worship services in a nave that seats 1,200. All this makes entering and leaving God's house something like intermission at an overcrowded old-time opera house. The directional signs are good but the halls and cloisters are ungenerous and jerky and there's inevitably quite a bit of genteel jostling going on. In all fairness, the church has some outstanding brochures discussing its history and architecture. It tries to be as soulful as a corporate set-up can be.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I don't think anyone is allowed to hang around here looking lost; the church is so busy that the poor ushers have the dual duty of greeting and giving the bum's rush. After five minutes stragglers are probably taken somewhere, even if only to be re-educated.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The after service coffee was supplanted by the congregation meeting to discus and vote on a set of funding initiatives. Usually it's quite okay – a sort ofl chatty get-together.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – This is a church that does things right the first time and doesn't pinch pennies yet doesn't constantly nag its members for pledges and special contributions.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Absolutely. When in town do visit, but come early. The 9.30am is less packed.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
In the meeting to discuss the Church's expansion plans a woman asked what retail space in Michigan Avenue would be lost. There followed a stand-up routine as the session comedienne said they would set up a shop to sell "postcards and pictures of John Buchanan." (Laughter) "Maybe little shrines of him, with his picture and little candles surrounding." (Hearty laughter) "People will come from miles around." (Diminished laughter). Great stand-up comedy.
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