First Presbyterian, Wilmette, Illinois, USA

First Presbyterian, Wilmette, Illinois, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Ribbons
Church: First Presbyterian
Location: Wilmette, Illinois, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 27 June 2010, 10:30am

The building

It's a lovely, traditional Presbyterian church on a quiet street in an affluent residential neighborhood. There has been a church on this site for almost a century, although the first building was destroyed by fire in 1929. The first services were held in the present structure in 1933, according to the history page on the church's website.

The church

The people here are genuinely happy to see one another and seem to be quite nurturing and encouraging. They all wore hand written nametags, which was helpful, but we were not offered nametags ourselves.

The neighborhood

Wilmette is 14 miles north of Chicago on the western shore of Lake Michigan. The neighborhood surrounding the church is stunning, featuring large, stately homes with perfectly manicured lawns and landscaping. Another church is directly across the street, which is interesting as they stand in the middle of a very old, established neighborhood.

The cast

The Revd Sarah Butter (presiding), the Revd Autum Lum (liturgist), Erik Wiebe (worship director, children's sermon), Peggy Massello (organist), Linnea Jacobs (vocalist) and Kent Darbyshire (guitar).

What was the name of the service?

Worship Service.

How full was the building?

Mostly full – this was surprising as the service was in June and most churches experience a significant drop in attendance during the summer.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes, a standard formal "Welcome" with a bright smile. An older woman was handing out bulletins. She seemed quite rushed and somewhat unhappy. Perhaps it was because she was working with young people and they weren't able to keep up with her efficiency?

Was your pew comfortable?

Honestly, I've not found any pew that is particularly comfortable. But as pews go, they were well cushioned and certainly acceptable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

There was a pleasant buzz of conversation among the people who filled about half the sanctuary. The organ began playing exactly four minutes before worship started. More people came in at that point.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"God, this is the day you have made." Yes, it was a prayer of adoration!

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, and a Presbyterian hymnbook in addition to the bulletin.

What musical instruments were played?

Mostly the organ. However, during the offertory hymn, four singers were accompanied by the piano and a guitarist.

Did anything distract you?

There was a man in his mid to late 40s who kept getting up, walking up the side aisle, disappearing, then returning to his seat. He must have repeated this process three or four times throughout the service. Also, a few of the banners on the walls were flapping every time the air conditioner fans kicked on.

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

The service was "Presbyterian comfortable". I've a friend who insists that all Presbyterians have stiff upper lips, so when you find one who is "comfortably Protestant" and friendly, you have to wonder what's in the water. The service was structured in the traditional Presbyterian way and flowed appropriately. No surprises, nothing particular that stood out, good or bad.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

17 minutes.

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

8 – If you enjoy an articulate, well researched sermon that engages proper exegesis (those of you who like this style of preaching know what this means), this is a great place for you. Mrs Butter was thorough. She made an effort to engage the congregation by singing a third of the way through, which unfortunately was awkward to me but the rest of the congregants seemed right at home. She physically leaned over the pulpit and was prone to pose a question, then listed several things at an increased speed in answer.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The title was "Asking for the Right Gift". Based on 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-15a (Elijah taken up to heaven), it was a retelling of the story of Elisha's experience of Elijah's leaving.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The service featured a "Litany of Gratitude and Closure" for the associate pastor, who was moving on "to a new chapter in her life". The best part was when the worship leaders showed their personalities during the litany, expressing their genuine appreciation for the departing associate. The congregation and staff seemed truly to enjoy one another and I looked forward to meeting them.

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

Frankly, it is summer so it is hard to get a read on the norm. If I could make any criticism, it would be that this church seems really comfortable being a family, making it apparent to guests that they are not a member of the family. Despite that, they appeared very welcoming and happy to have me with them. I'm just not convinced they are outsider-oriented. A good example was the hand written nametags – the bulletin requested that visitors pin their name tags on, but no mention was made where to find one. An invitation was made to join the congregation for coffee downstairs, but I was not directed to anyone who could show me how to get downstairs. Despite things like this, they were a very kind and loving congregation.

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

The director of discipleship formation eventually found me and directed me downstairs. No one else spoke to me until I was at coffee hour.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I never made it to the coffee table! People asked me if I would like coffee or lemonade, cake, etc. I quickly found myself with a paper cup of lemonade and a plate of savory treats (I'm not much for sweets).

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

7 – I would like to return in the fall to get a feel for the rest of the congregation. I understand that this church is recovering from some tragedy in the past. How the other people who belong feel about their worshiping community may sway my decision for the better or the worse.

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

Yes. The sending off of the associate was done with honor and genuine appreciation and respect for her service. The sermon was a solid reading of the Word. And the people engaging with one another evokes somewhere I would not mind being on a regular basis.

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

The opening of the worship service and the kindness of the people. It's important to me that worship open with a prayer of adoration. After all, that's why we're there: to adore and worship God.

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