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||1186: First Congregational, Evanston, Illinois, USA
Mystery Worshipper: Misericord.
The church: First Congregational, Evanston, Illinois, USA.
Denomination: Congregational, a member of the National Association
of Congregational Christian Churches.
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
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.
The date & time: December 11, 2005, 10.00am, third Sunday of Advent.
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
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
"Please stand if you are able for the call to worship."
What books did the congregation use during the
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
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
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
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
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
Which part of the service was like being in
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
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 this church your regular (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
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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