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1742: First Presbyterian, Evanston, Illinois, USA
First Presbyterian, Evanston, Illinois, USA
Photo: Google Maps
Mystery Worshipper: Ribbons.
The church: First Presbyterian, Evanston, Illinois, USA.
Denomination: Presbyterian Church (USA).
The building: This limestone cathedralesque landmark dates from 1895 and is the work of the architectural firm of D.H. Burnham & Company, which also was involved in the planning of New York City's Flatiron Building, several structures in Washington, DC, and the Plan of Chicago, an influential set of drawings, maps and proposals that greatly influenced the city's layout, including the lakefront parks and the boulevard system. The interior features beautiful Tiffany styled windows, hand carved woodwork, and German inspired beams. The lighting is such that most architectural points of interest are well illuminated.
The church: Their numerous ministries and outreaches are all well documented on the church's website. Of special note is "Souper Saturday," held in conjunction with St Luke's Episcopal Church, whereby soup and sack lunches are served each Saturday to those in need; and Friends in Christ, which provides support ranging from walking the dog to running errands for members of the church family who are going through difficult times.
The neighborhood: Evanston, a suburb just to the north of Chicago, is home to Northwestern University and indeed grew around the university. It is named after John Evans, one of the founders of Northwestern. Evanston is an upscale, historic community, known for its many excellent examples of Victorian architecture and as the birthplace in 1874 of the Women's Christian Temperance Movement.
The cast: The Revd Dr David Bianchin, interim pastor. Others involved in the service were David Sharlow, interim choir director; Natalie Richards, interim worship coordinator; Connor Phelan; Joan Ducayet; and Jack Harriff.
The date & time: March 8, 2009, 10.00am.

What was the name of the service?
First Things First, a celebration of a season of renewal.

How full was the building?
About three-fifths full – not bad, considering this is a college town on spring break. The service was "come as you are" – some folks arrived in jeans, others in a suit. The people were of various cultural and economic backgrounds and mixed ages, both singles and families. Everyone seemed genuinely glad to see one another.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. A young man eagerly introduced himself and welcomed us to worship. Several people made an effort to extend kindly greetings during the passing of peace.

Was your pew comfortable?
The pews were very comfortable for sitting, but spaced too close together for comfortable standing. I spent half the service with my thighs pressing against the hymnals and Bibles.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A very jovial and welcoming atmosphere. There was a lot of catching up and sharing of stories from the week. Older folks arrived early while the students slipped in the back just before worship began.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome to worship this morning."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymnals and Bibles were both available. However, everything we needed was put on a projector. Additionally, most lyrics were printed in the bulletin.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ, guitar, bass, drums and percussion. There was a choir of about 30 members, which helped a lot. It seemed that everyone joined in singing the traditional tunes, but most people sort of politely mumbled along during the more contemporary songs. It wasn't that they didn't know the words – they were projected as well as included in the bulletin – but people just seemed to not enjoy, or be as familiar with and comfortable with, the contemporary numbers. My guess? They had two services at one point and merged them for some reason, but haven't worked out the kinks yet. Also, the music did not necessarily fit the message.

Did anything distract you?
Oddly, the smell of cooking onions for a moment! Also, during the prayers, a woman got up and asked that we pray for the deceased, especially for X, whose funeral would be held at 2.00pm on... I thought it odd that she announced the details of the funeral during a prayer.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was an attempt at "blended worship." We opened with a formal procession to a 16th century tune "Sing Praise to God" and then stepped right into a praise and worship song from 2005 entitled "Father, Spirit, Jesus." The service jumped around a lot and did not include communion, but overall one felt at home, so much so that it was easy to forgive the pattern. I recognized most parts of the service as similar to those in my home Presbyterian church, but personally I would have preferred a much stronger structure with liberties taken within it, rather than a loose structure such as this. Desipte it all, a friend who was with me who was not Presbyterian commented how comfortable and welcome he felt. They made a special effort to include young people in worship as readers, speakers, etc., but I thought that this resulted in some of the prayers sounding "floppy."

Exactly how long was the sermon?
17 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Pastor Dave came off very genuine in his faith. He delivered a well researched, thoughtful but yet simple sermon. No grand parallels or messages – just a simple point that was easy to understand and easy to embrace. He also had a sense of humor that drew people into the sermon with ease. Unpretentious and warm. That said, however, I thought his illustrations were more prominent than the biblical message, which didn't seem to be particularly well woven into the sermon.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
To be a Christian who is effective in carrying out what God calls us to do, we need to take care of ourselves. We should eat well, get some exercise, and and reduce stress. We need to be physically fit to be fit for God's work. He concluded the sermon with a quote from Chariots of Fire: "When I run, I feel God's pleasure."

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sense of belonging. One was not made to feel like a guest, or even like a member, but simply connected to one's brothers and sisters in Christ – the way it should be.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The service jumped around. Just as we were getting a decent flow going, the music changed, or an announcement was made, or we were suddenly moving around passing the peace. People wandered about quite a bit during the exchange of peace, but quickly returned to their places. "Someone has trained them well," I thought to myself. Hah!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
My friend wanted to talk about the positive experience we had just had together in worship. As people walked by us, I made an effort to initiate eye contact. Several smiled in acknowledgment but none stopped.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There surprisingly wasn't one.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – The church is in transition, as their former pastor of over 15 years had just retired. The current pastor, as well as many of the staff, are serving in an interim capacity, and a search committee has been formed to find new leadership. I have great hope for this congregation in the future.

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

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The genuineness of the pastor and how the people seemed so happy to be with one another. The church was beautiful as well!
 
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