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William Westfall

How Should a Church Look

My first encounter with evangelical worship took place in the First Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. I had just passed through Sunday school and was now permitted to worship with the adults at the real religious service. The congregation (well over 500 people on a good Sunday) was seated in curved pews that looked down upon a platform set against the east wall of the sanctuary; it was furnished with a lectern and pulpit, a remembrance table, an American flag, fresh-cut flowers (given in memory), and two high-backed chairs reserved for the ministers in their black Geneva gowns. Behind the platform, the white-robed choir was arrayed in ascending rows, having advanced to this place while singing the processional hymn. A splash of polished organ pipes further enhanced this impressive backdrop. Above the pulpit there was a plain white cross.

My older brother and I were placed between my two grandmothers, who sang with great courage, dueling joyfully at the upper limits of the human voice. My father, who had led us manfully to our places, always managed to escape just before the sermon on the pretext of helping his friends prepare the coffee and biscuits. They talked golf in the church basement, blissfully unaware that their presence in the kitchen was contesting the gendered divisions of church work. My mother had died when I was a baby, but it was she who had introduced the family to this congregation.

Of the sermons I remember almost nothing, although for years I assumed Zion was a town in Scotland. During the service my mind was often drawn to the stained glass window that filled the entire south wall of the sanctuary. Known simply as the Harrison window, it offered a romantic interlude during moments of tedium, and I have often wondered if it was Tiffany's radiant image of the angel of the Resurrection that had drawn me to the study of religion and culture, albeit in a foreign land.

What I was witnessing almost 50 years ago, Jeanne Halgren Kilde explains, was ...

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