Trinity Baptist, New Haven, Connecticut, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Trinity Baptist
Location: New Haven, Connecticut, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 23 December 2018, 10:00am

The building

Originally a neo-Gothic chapel for German Catholic immigrants, the current building on 630 State Street was built in 1923 (the previous building was at 231 George Street, built in 1873) in New Haven. Some of the stained glass windows still visible list the names of the donors in German. Next to the church building is a rectory. Both were sold in 2006 to the Trinity Baptist congregation, which at the time had an average Sunday morning attendance of 150. The exterior appears to be untouched; the inscription ‘Saint Boniface’s Church’ is still visible above the front door.

The church

The congregation of Trinity Baptist was formed in the early 1970s by two students from Yale Divinity School and a Baptist pastor from East Hartford. It is the only Southern Baptist congregation in New Haven. The church heavily invests in outreach, both to university students and to the poor in urban areas (the ‘checkerboard’ that is New Haven); it supports church plants, a small food pantry, and the nearby Columbus House homeless shelter.

The neighborhood

The church is within reasonable walking distance of downtown New Haven; it serves Yale students, including many undergraduates, as well as the diverse non-academic areas of New Haven just outside Yale’s campus. One of the pastors is a graduate of Yale Divinity School, and the church seems to be a prominent place for Christians on campus who identify as evangelical or are exploring Christianity in the evangelical tradition. As I was walking to the building from my car, I heard the Islamic call to worship being chanted from a nearby building and was reminded of the area’s diversity.

The cast

An elder gave the welcome and the pastoral prayer; one of the three co-pastors gave the sermon.

What was the name of the service?

It was called Morning Worship on the website and Morning Service on the leaflet. Coffee/fellowship hour was also listed separately on both the website and the leaflet.

How full was the building?

There must have been about 200 people present (enough to make it difficult to estimate!) in a church that could probably hold 600 when packed. The undergraduates would have largely been home for break, so it appears to have been less packed than usual.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I was given a warm but brief ‘Good morning’ by a greeter wearing a badge around his neck.

Was your pew comfortable?

The pews were wooden, with a perfect 90° angle between seat and back. I noticed myself feeling a bit sore towards the beginning of the sermon. The kneelers were flat and not very comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

People of all ages were generally chatting with each other informally before the start of the service. People came in at a fairly constant rate and continued to do so several minutes after the start of the service. There was no pre-service music, fellowship continuing right up till the welcome.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

Because conversations were ongoing at this time, I had difficulty hearing the exact words. What I heard was ‘Good morning, and welcome to Trinity Baptist Church. Please find a seat.’ The elder then announced an invitatory psalm and read it while the congregation settled in.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The pews contained hardback copies of The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, which many congregants referred to during the scripture reading and sermon. My copy had a sticker on the inside front cover which said ‘Do you need a Bible? Please take this copy compliments of Trinity Baptist Church.’

What musical instruments were played?

Keyboard, guitar, bass guitar. There was also a drum kit but it was not played at this particular service.

Did anything distract you?

During the service, I was distracted by what must have been the former side chapels. I mused about what they might have looked like before, with decorated altars standing where now there were lighted bare-branch trees. I also noticed the Stations of the Cross, which were integral to the church’s walls and still quite visible.

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

The worship was structured but had an informal feel. The musical selections were mostly classic Christmas hymns, along with a couple of contemporary strophic hymns, accompanied by instruments in a contemporary style. The musicians played unselfconsciously and did not give the impression of being a ‘performance’ or a ‘band’. At the end of a service there was a baptism of a 12-year-old who gave a brief testimony and answered ‘Yes’ to a few questions of intent before being quickly immersed. The testimony and baptism were followed by applause.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

40 minutes, plus 5 minutes of introductory remarks, reading, and prayer by the preacher.

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

7 — The preacher seemed a little nervous at first but eased into the sermon. He spoke formally but did not read from a script, making it easy for the listener to stay engaged throughout. His delivery was pleasantly nerdy – and I smiled when he mentioned having corrected his teacher in second grade (it fit my impression of him!). He used the structure of his text, which was Isaiah 50 (Israel’s sin and the suffering servant), as an outline for the sermon, helpfully giving the ‘section heads’ before delving into each section in depth. He tended to use multiple analogies for the same concept, serving to lengthen further a sermon whose content could probably have been adequately conveyed in half the length.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Isaiah 50 depicts our miserable condition, the obedience of the suffering servant, and the hope given to us. Though not all our suffering is the result of our sin, we often do need more correction than we’re willing to receive. Without God we are in a hopeless state. Jesus fits the description of the suffering servant who fully obeyed God. Just as the suffering servant was alone, Jesus needed nothing to be added to his life, death, and resurrection in order to save us. He is the light we need to bring us out of our darkness.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I loved singing the hymns, particularly those with weighty lyrics. I was most moved when singing the verses of ‘What Child Is This’ that are not frequently heard: ‘Nails, spear shall pierce him through, the Cross be borne for me, for you. Hail, hail the Word made flesh, the Babe, the Son of Mary.’ These words helped me feel the connection between the mystery of Christ’s incarnation and his status as the offering who reconciled men and God.

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

It was tough to see the remnants of a 137-year-old community, knowing that it had been disbanded, absorbed into other congregations, and had even passed from this world. Though the names of some parishioners from times past were still present on the windows, the altars were gone.

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

I stood toward the back of the church, and waited in line to use the toilet. Most people filed right past me. I figured that they must have been heading downstairs to where the coffee was. People were busy talking in groups just as they were at the start of the service. I tried hanging around near the preacher, but he was engaged in other conversations. At the fellowship hour, however, people were most friendly! When in line at the coffee hour, I had a lovely brief conversation, coffee in hand, I had to wander only several seconds before another congregant inquired about me, asking where I was visiting from and what my interests were.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The coffee, served in paper cups, was quite good. There were assorted cookies and chips as well. I was told that I had to go for them, as they would disappear quickly!

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

7 — This church really seems to shine in its outreach and fellowship. Its real draw is in participating in its community life, and I think I would be more eager to become an active and regular member than an occasional visitor. However, since I have a preference for more historic rites of worship, and as my sacramental theology is not a close match with the Southern Baptist Convention, I am less likely to make an occasional visit by myself while in the area.

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

I really did. Especially as I worship in a somewhat different tradition, it was wonderful to see Christians everywhere live out the faith with such enthusiasm and true fellowship. It was interesting to see, while participating in a structure of worship a bit different from my own, the ways in which the components of the gospel were all present. My home church has communion every Sunday; at this service, there was no communion, but the connections between God’s work among the people of Israel, God incarnate in the person of Jesus, Christ’s offering of himself as a sacrifice to reconcile us to God, and God’s strengthening us in our journey were made clear throughout the hymns, readings, and sermon.

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

The bare-branch trees in the now-empty side chapels.

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