The Reformed Church of Highland Park, New Jersey

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.