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Perspectives Journal
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December 2009: Church Review

The Reformed Church of Highland Park, New Jersey

by John Coakley

The Reformed Church (RCA) of Highland Park, New Jersey, stands on a side street just off the main thoroughfare of this residential town of about 14,000 people across the Raritan River from the old city of New Brunswick. A small century-old Gothic building houses the sanctuary. The educational building is only slightly more recent and blends in well enough, but attached to one end of it, in a rather different style, is the congregation's brand new clapboarded subsidized housing project for young women from foster homes.

The Highland Park church is only one of many churches of the Reformed tradition in central Jersey. I count twenty others (nine RCA, eleven Presbyterian) within a seven-mile radius of it. These are an enduring sign of a bygone time, of a century and more ago when Reformed folk dominated religious life in the region. RC of Highland Park Nowadays most of these churches have small congregations, and typically find their aging buildings to be a burden. But new life appears here and there, not least at the Highland Park church, where the congregation has been particularly keen on engaging its community.

When I visited the church a couple of times this spring, I found the congregation lively. They didn't pay particular attention to visitors. Nonetheless there was a lot of interaction among the people in the pews, and that included me, even if I wasn't singled out for hospitality. In this congregation's version of the passing of the peace, people don't just shake hands with their neighbors in the pew, but migrate around the whole sanctuary and chat for at least a full five minutes. Prayer, too, is interactive. The prayer time, called "Acts of the Disciples," also goes on for several minutes and includes only two brief addresses to God--first in thanksgiving and then in intercession--but following each of these, the pastor passes or brings a microphone all around the congregation for people to declare the things they're thankful for or are concerned about. I assumed at first these were requests for prayer, but after each voyage of the microphone around the room, everyone sang a prayer response, and I realized these declarations were, in fact, the prayer itself, or most of it--a horizontalized prayer, in which God listens to the congregation talking to each other.

How do people become part of this church if it doesn't cultivate visitors? Seth Kaper-Dale, one of the church's three part-time co-pastors (the others being his wife Stephanie and Patty Fox) thinks of the entry-points into the congregation as "ever y door but the sanctuary": it's the church's various ministries, he says--not only its conspicuous housing projects, including most recently a home for homeless veterans, but also its advocacy for immigrants, a community garden, a prayer group ministry, and an after-school program, among others. These groups and projects bring some 2,000 people into the church buildings every week, and, as Seth puts it, some of those people end up in worship on Sunday. By that explanation it's the ministries that create the worshiping community.

The explanation rings true enough as far as it goes, and the church's ministries certainly got lots of mention in the services I attended. On the other hand, I have seen churches with active ministries that didn't translate themselves into a worshiping community like this one. Clearly there are other things going on in the ser vice, and though I don't know if there's any neat explanation of the evident vitality here, what impressed me most was that under, around, and through the talk of outreach, I thought I heard the gospel. When I later asked Seth Kaper-Dale what he thought was Reformed about this church, he spoke of their "anxiety-free approach" to the church's mission, a sense of finally "not thinking it's up to us." I hear this as a conviction that the church's ministries proceed from gratitude, not from duty or from anxiety or (heaven forbid) common sense.

For me, the evidence of that approach--more than the horizontal prayers and the passing of the peace--was what made the ser vice work. Even though I'm sure that there were many in that sanctuary who hadn't had an old-fashioned Christian education, the language of the faith was assumed without apology; I sensed no concern to justify it or reduce it to an explanation. One of the services included--amidst all the community-consciousness--a Taizé chant, an old-fashioned anthem, and a testimony from an older woman about "how Jesus is good to me." And being assumed without apology, the faith-language was fully available to be put to work. On the Sunday after Ascension, the sermon began with an anecdote about an Iraq veteran who committed suicide and proceeded to interpret the congregation's solidarity with those who suffer, including homeless veterans, as the vicarious earthly work of the ascended Christ. And in that sermon--not just as it might sound on a tape or read on a page, but as it was woven into the life of this particular congregation on that particular Sunday--I did hear the gospel.

The Church Review series aims to explore current worship and preaching practices at different Reformed and Presbyterian churches around North America. Some of these are "traditional," some "innovative," but together they represent a cross-section of the current Reformed scene. Reviewers present factual data about the churches they visit along with their own reflections upon what they observed.

John Coakley is Feakes Professor of Church History at New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Brunswick, New Jersey.