A few dozen people in a room with about fifty chairs offers a different vibe from the same number of people in, say, a cathedral designed to seat hundreds.
The (American Baptist) Riverfront Family Church began in 2009, gaining about 30 members (as of June 2011) and 300+ newsletter subscribers in the time since. What they lack in numbers, they make up for in devoted congregants. Whenever mentioning that this was going to be one of my Hartford Pew Review stops, those who had ever been there insisted that I go and that I would love it.
The new church meets inside 960 Main, the former G. Fox department store building. The architecture, though not particularly churchy, is an elegant backdrop. Currently, the building is decorated for Christmas. The chairs set out in the atrium are actually nice– not a metal folding chair in sight.
Not that less comfortable chairs would be a problem. The services are short. “Familytime” begins at 9 on Sundays; this is followed by the “Sunday Gathering,” geared toward adults, from 10:15-11a.m.
On the Sunday in December when I visited, guest preacher, Rev. Venida Jenkins gave a sermon about hospitality, a topic relevant all year round, but particularly now, deep in the holiday season when some of us struggle with opening our homes (or visiting others) when we have neither the skills of Martha Stewart nor of any of the common folk featured on Apartment Therapy. Jenkins said that in her couple of years living in Hartford, she has had some 89 guests in her home. The sermon about creating a “haven of hospitality” was interwoven with Biblical verse about Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth.
The giant projector screen seemed like a bit much with such a small group, but there is no doubt that multimedia presentations can make long sermons more engaging. Instead of budgeting for a supply of Bibles or wasting lots of paper with extra verse printed out weekly, key passages were projected large enough to be read from the back row. Images of Oprah Winfrey and deer (on separate slides) were mixed in with video segments designed to keep listeners involved. Though the sermon was somewhat long, it moved along quickly with the aid of images that were more interesting than the standard clipart included in church bulletins.
The Riverfront Family Church describes itself as having contemporary worship, and they do. Beyond the multimedia approach, they also use language that is accessible to those who have been neither raised in the Church nor who have college degrees. The audio of past sermons is made available on the Riverfront Family Church website and they have a social media presence.
They also stake claim to “progressive social values.” This is a younger congregation than many, and more racially/ethnically diverse as well. Rev. George Chien of the MCC recently preached about how to help those who are coming out: the advice did not involve trying to get the individual to go through a gay-to-straight conversion. Doodle the Dog, their mascot, was at this year’s Pride, letting themselves be open and publicly-associated with the GLBT community. Pastor Nancy (who prefers to be called just “Nancy” by adults) was also at Pride, engaging the curious. It was there where she told me that she went to Yale Divinity School and founded this church because she was not satisfied with the existing offerings.
In warmer months, the Riverfront Family Church does not meet at 960 Main or even in Hartford; they head over to Wickham Park in Manchester.
There is something more accessible about a church that meets in places that are not exclusively churches. Being in a park and deciding to join in, with the option of casually walking away if it does not suit, is less intimidating than opening giant doors and entering a space where one’s stranger status is immediately identifiable. The same is true with the 960 Main location. Walking through the atrium to get to Social Security offices, Capital Community College, or Sadhna’s is already a familiar experience for many; pausing in that atrium for a worship service, then, is the only new part of the experience. Where one might sit at a table and drink coffee while checking email any other day of the week, one can then sit (in more comfortable chairs) on a Sunday and listen to the Worship Band, which includes drumming and strumming.
Because I arrived a few minutes late, there was nobody to greet me, but tables of information were easy to navigate on my own. Welcome bags (the reusable kind) were available for visitors, so I snagged one. Inside: literature, a cd, and a “kindness box” geared toward families with children.
Even without the formal welcome, the Riverfront Family Church seemed friendly enough, as almost everyone stayed around and chatted after the service. I only noticed one person quickly head for the exit. It felt like people really wanted to be there, not that they felt obligated to attend.
Good: Not remotely intimidating. Service moves quickly and sermons are easy to understand. Multimedia for those who need to do more than just listen. Family-oriented and gay-friendly. An easy walk to City Steam Brewery or JoJo’s afterwards.
Less Good: This is not really a negative for most people, but if mascots make you uneasy, you might want to skip the early service and opt for the later one instead.
The Riverfront Family Church — at least through the colder months — holds its worship services at 960 Main Street at 9 (children and parents) and 10:15 (adults) on Sundays. This is on a bus line. Free parking is available on street and in surface lot at corner of Talcott and Main, as well as in the Morgan Street Garage.
Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford.
To view other stories on this topic, search RealHartford at http://www.realhartford.org/.