First Church in Albany, Albany, New York

First Church in Albany, Albany, New York, USA

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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: First Church in Albany
Location: Albany, New York, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 20 January 2008, 10:30am

The building

The present red brick building with twin steeples is the church's fourth and dates from 1794. The architect was Philip Hooker, who designed many public and private buildings in the central New York State area. Noteworthy are the church's Tiffany windows and a weathercock and pulpit imported from Holland in 1656 at a cost of 25 beaver skins. The pulpit, thought to be the oldest in America, is fitted with an hourglass originally used to time the sermon, although it appears to have been retired from that purpose.

The church

The congregation was formed by Dutch settlers and is said to be the second oldest Reformed congregation in America. It first met in a grain warehouse in 1642. Theodore Roosevelt was a parishioner while he was state governor. The church engages in numerous ministries all listed on their website; in addition to the usual food bank and nursery care, they hold worship services at local nursing homes, conduct exchange visits with a Reformed congregation in Cuba, and provide school supplies and clothing to children in need of same.

The neighborhood

Albany, the state capital of New York, is the fourth oldest city in the United States. Its neighborhoods are a mixture of old and new. The church is located downtown near the French Renaissance-style Capital Building and the ultra-modern Empire State Plaza, surrounded by government offices, museums, restaurants and performance spaces.

The cast

The Revd John Bowen, minister of congregational care, was the liturgist. The Revd John D. Paarlberg, senior minister, preached. Mary E. Bon, minister of music, presided at the organ and led the choir.

What was the name of the service?

Morning Worship

How full was the building?

Less than a third full, perhaps 40 to 50 people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I was greeted a number of times as I made my way from the side aisle to the middle aisle, which required my walking the length of the church from front to back and then toward the front again to sit down in a middle pew. A gentleman handed me a worship leaflet as I entered the nave, and each usher I passed wished me good morning.

Was your pew comfortable?

Wooden pews, with black trim and a red cushion in excellent shape. Pretty comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Mostly quiet. There was a pocket of ladies who were talking through the prelude, but otherwise people were quietly awaiting the start of the service. Right before the organ prelude, the two ministers came in and sat facing the congregation in elevated chairs on both sides of the altar. Their steely stares made me think of teachers looking out for troublemakers.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"The Lord be with you."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, a hymnal entitled Rejoice in the Lord, and a supplement entitled Sing to the Lord a New Song, from which we sang one hymn. The hymns were also made available on photocopied sheets.

What musical instruments were played?

A large pipe organ with the console above and behind the nave. The organist used a mirror to watch what was happening within the church. There was also a choir of about 10 people.

Did anything distract you?

A rather attractive communion set was displayed on a table in front of the altar, but there was no communion this Sunday. Apparently they celebrate holy communion only once monthly, and this served to remind me as a practicing Episcopalian of what I was missing throughout the entire service.

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

Stiff upper lip, although the congregation was warm and friendly during the peace.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes. (The pulpit hourglass expires in two hours.)

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

7 – Pastor Paarlberg had a warm, satiny voice that was a pleasure to listen to.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The pastor took as his text the gospel reading, John 1:29-42. When John the Baptist called Jesus the Lamb of God, two of John's disciples began to follow Jesus. "What are you looking for?" Jesus asked them. "Where are you staying?" they replied. "Come and see" was Jesus' answer. Where we stay is more than just the place we lay our head, it's the way we live our lives. The disciples are asking about how Jesus lives, if he is true to what he preaches. We need to ask the same question of ourselves. We need to examine the way we serve God in our daily lives.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The congregation seemed welcoming and willing to reach out to newcomers. People seemed to be a variety of types: wealthy, working class, black, white, young, old. But the community of the church was what they seemed to value.

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

As frequently happens in a church with a talented choir, much of the congregation seemed to feel excused from singing. As I take pleasure in singing hymns, it made me feel as if I were intruding on those around me and worried about hitting any sour notes.

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

A couple of people came over and welcomed me, inviting me to lunch downstairs as soon as the service ended.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I was unable to stay for the special potluck lunch they were having, so I cannot offer a description, sad to say. I am sure I would have enjoyed it.

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

6 – This was my first time at a Reformed church, and I was surprised at how similar the service was to the Episcopal liturgy, but I would miss not having communion every Sunday.

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

Yes. Such a friendly and diverse community is what I would hope Christianity would lead us to.

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

The two pastors staring out at us before the service.

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