Two weeks ago I worked at the First Parish Congregational Church in Saco, Maine. As usual, I asked the customers and volunteers many questions about the church, parishioners, politics and doctrine. I was very impressed by the positive “vibe” and sense of community. When they invited me to attend their services I gladly accepted. I’ve enjoyed visiting church services of all demoninations for many years. I always learn something and meet interesting people.
Religion is very important because of the powerful influence it has on peoples’ lives and decisions. It is, in a very real sense, the prism through which many people view the world. It would behoove each of us, therefore, to learn as much as we can about religionists and the religions which influence them. It is not enough, however, to study from afar. To understand people and their motivations you have to, as they say, “press the flesh”. I am fortunate in my occupation to be able to work in many different churches of many denominations throughout New England. I enjoy the opportunity to discuss theology and politics with these diverse peoples.
On September 21, 2008 I took the girls to the First Parish Congregational Church just up the street from our house. When I saw the Darwin Ichthys on the back of the car behind which we parked I knew the experience would contrast wildly from that of my thirty years as a Mormon. To say I was impressed would be a gross understatement. The building, for starters, is gorgeous. The previous structure was completely destroyed in a fire. The new building was designed and built to accomodate their every need. What was more impressive to me was the vibe. As soon as the girls and I entered we were greeted by several people. The foyer area was packed with people smiling, laughing and generally enjoying each others’ company. Several people ushered us to the balcony of the sanctuary and helped us find seats. We felt very welcome.
The Senior Minister, Doug Nielsen, said during his sermon that this was a “grand experiment of a church”. I thought that was cool. No divine revelation or claims of superiority. No “we are right and they are wrong”. No diviciveness, whatsoever. How refreshing. During the sermon Doug talked about environmental and political activism, community, the Council of Churches, economic justice, human rights, homelessness, poverty and health care. What I was used to hearing about at church was praise for the early church leaders and pioneers of the Mormon church and how it was the only true religion. The parishioners at the congregational church seemed more interested in making the community and the world a better place. I liked that. A lot.
The youths and their leaders spoke and shared a slideshow about their recent trip to the National Youth Event. They all wore their matching t-shirts from the event. They talked about “making a difference” in the world and “going green”. One young lady spoke about the current crisis in Sudan and Darfur and how she had learned to overcome fear to accomplish whatever she put her mind to and make a positive impact on the world.
At one point the small children went down and sat on the steps that spanned the front of the sanctuary “stage”. The pastor gave them a “children’s sermon” in which he encouraged them to remember the Three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle. He told them that what god wanted them to do was to take care of the planet. What a positive message. How refreshing.
During the “call to prayer” the minister spoke, sans any formalities, about specific parishioners who were in need or going through difficult times. He talked about them individually and named them. It really seemed like a big family. Then he opened it up to everybody. One at a time people rose and offered a prayer for their family members, other parishioners or people and nations of the world. After each person was done the minister would offer words of compassion and encouragement. The call to prayer was touching, inspiring and beautiful.
The UCC is Christian by definition. “God” was sprinkled thoughout each presentation and a few Bible verses were shared, but the tone was not overtly religious. It was much more like an assembly of people who simply wanted to enjoy each other’s company and make the world a better place. I liked that.
I was raised in the Mormon church and stayed devout for thirty years. The more I experience other faiths the more I realize how absolutely cultlike the Mormons are. They are insular and tell themselves over and over that their religion is the only true religion. They talk incessantly about the persecution of the early church members and the great sacrifice of the “pioneers”. It’s all about Joseph Smith, Laman and Lemuel, The Book of Mormon, yada, yada, yada. They are xenophobic and elitist. They are also very much fundamentalists. As an atheist and antitheist I would love to see bronze-age myths die off and have a true enlightenment. I have to admit, though, I could find very little about the Congregational church with which to quarrel. As far as religions go it is one of the best, which is to say it does the least harm.
If it weren’t for the theological mumbo-jumbo I might join the First Parish Congregational Church in Saco. I had a great time with them and really liked what they are about. And the people couldn’t be more friendly and cool.
Click here to read more about the history of this church.