Before they began meeting at the Lyceum, Redeemer Hill, freshly launched on Easter Sunday in 2011, had been holding its services at City Steam Brewery.
Even they acknowledge the quirkiness of this.
Though further now from the Naughty Nurse, Redeemer Hill, which describes itself as a “church plant” of the Western Connecticut Baptist Association, is closer to the people. The Lyceum on Lawrence Street (formerly a punk club) is in Frog Hollow, near Billings Forge.
The new location is appropriate. In a sermon that you can listen to online, Pastor Joe Fisher talks about people tithing cigarettes because that’s all they had to give.
If you were wondering where the young folk worship on Sunday mornings, this might be it. During a visit in January, I counted one congregant who appeared to be over the age of 45. Most appeared to be twenty- and thirty-somethings. The word “dude” was heard no fewer than a half dozen times. Jeans and Vans were the norm, though a few people dressed more business casual.
Attracting the younger generations is something that many churches are struggling with. They all seem to be asking how to make the sermons relevant to Generation X and Y, how to make the music more appealing, how to offer social opportunities (or, they are not asking these questions and their general attendance reflects it). Not that Redeemer Hill is the absolute model for what works, but they have been steadily growing in the less than one year of existence, and worshippers were almost entirely from these younger generations.
When we arrived one Sunday morning, we were greeted by a handful of people before we even entered the building. Near the welcome table, we were greeted again by a few more folks. There was no order of service, but we were handed a glossy information brochure and “connection card” by Pastor Joe.
The conference room on the top floor of the Lyceum is used as the meeting place. A table of snacks and coffee was set up in the back of the room, which was helpful because the service was somewhere between ninety minutes and two hours. I’m not sure that getting up mid-service to snack was encouraged, but at least one person discreetly grabbed a bite.
The order of service made the time fly by. The service began with music from the worship band, which featured keyboard, djembe, cello, guitar, two vocalists, and the lyrics projected on a screen. Nearly all worshippers sang along, or at least mouthed the words convincingly. While not exactly my style preference, the musicians were talented and sincerely into it. In fact, if there is anything that distinguishes this church from others, it’s the level of enthusiasm and sincerity consistent among worshippers.
Once in the door, what I knew deep down was confirmed: the disgusting hypocrisy of many politicians who wield religion in a holier than thou way is a talent unique, pretty much, to politicians. And while there are definitely some aspects of the Southern Baptist sect that I can not get behind, I can respect that the non-politicians among us are at least sincere in their beliefs and honestly trying to live better lives by their ideals.
During a January service, the pastor said a few words, then introduced three men who would speak about catechism, missionary work abroad, and missionary work on Vine Street.
That Sunday was the beginning of including the Heidelberg Catechism in the service, so there was an explanation of this, and then a few segments of the Catechism were displayed on the overhead screen. “Believers” were asked to stand and participate.
After a few minutes of this, there was a presentation on someone’s mission to Moldova. This lasted awhile, but knowing nothing to speak of about this poor Eastern European country, the talk about his experience was interesting. A slideshow video showed rural poverty, yet did not seem to be designed to tug at heartstrings.
The other featured speaker is part of a local mission, which, similar to those involved in Hartford Catholic Worker, lives among the population it seeks to affect. In this case, they have a house on Vine Street in Hartford called “Community of the Vine.” Here, they reach out to a population that is described as rarely having a church experience. On their website, they write:
For decades now, the north end of Hartford has been increasingly abandoned – by the middle class, the government, the business community, and much of the church (not the buildings, just the people). We’re convinced that Jesus never left the north end and that we have an opportunity to see Him and Know Him better in this place.
This belief counters what many say about the North East neighborhood specifically and Hartford in general. This seemingly novel concept was reiterated in Pastor’s reading from Jeremiah 29:4-7, which he said was central to the founding of this church plant. This letter to the exiles of Babylon (there was an “Occupy Babylon” joke in there) tells them to cultivate the land they are sent to and make the best of it. Pastor said that instead of keeping separate from the people of Babylon, the exiles were expected to become part of this society. He connected this to how he views Hartford. Rather than despise it, he believes people should love and pray for it.
This idea is voiced on the Redeemer Hill website, and as such, sets itself apart from others that either pity Hartford residents or ignore the fact that the church is located in Hartford.
From all appearances, this pro-Hartford perspective is also sincere, but in the North American Mission Board literature, there could be something more strategic at work here, as they write: “It’s been said if you reach the cities, you’ll reach the nations.” There is this paranoia concern held by some that the world is going to hell because we are not all Christians; church plants have been an attempt to rapidly address this, as membership of new churches tend to grow more than the older, established ones.
Over an hour into the service, Pastor Joe explained that the way they do communion is for people to approach the front of the room “as you are ready.” This is a self-service dipping of bread into juice. Letting people go about it at their own speed, over the course of a few songs, takes the pressure off those who, like myself, don’t partake. The communion segment was signaled as over when worshippers were invited to all stand and sing with the band.
At several times during the service, Pastor invited the congregants to pray, which was always led and brief. Although their website says that sometimes their services include silence, the one that I attended did not include this. It’s hard to reflect on the message(s) when there is not this space of quiet.
I do not recall any particular invite for people to remain for coffee, but the snacks are arranged by the main exit, so it’s obvious that such an opportunity exists. Also, it was not likely we could have quietly slipped out if we tried. We probably spoke with a third of the congregants just standing by the cookies and cake. Most of the conversation was as you’d expect (Where do you work? Where do you live? What brought you here?) but one individual asked us if we were Christians. That was a first. When visiting a synagogue, we were never asked if we were Jewish; likewise when visiting a masjid. In writing, the question does not seem controversial or startling, probably, but in person, it was not a question that we (one of whom regularly attends church for reasons other than reviewing them) really knew how to answer. Aside from that, I think all of the interactions were more natural because we were talking with basically our own peer group instead of those in a completely different stage of life from us.
During coffee time we were invited to lunch (we passed) and to a Wednesday night gospel community gathering in the West End. True to their word, nobody was pushy about converting visitors.
While this visit was pleasant on the whole, a past sermon points to the church being less than welcoming for those who feel like marriages should be based on mutual respect and egalitarianism. They believe men should be the head of the household and that women should not serve in leadership roles in the church. There are certainly more extreme and demeaning viewpoints out there, but this different-but-equal (which we know never quite works out that way) does not reflect progress, even if the unpacking of the belief in said sermon was more interesting than expected. At the same time, Redeemer Hill is pushing some interesting and forward thinking ideas about masculinity, aside from the idea that the man should head the household.
Good: Very friendly, young, and sincere. They actively acknowledge the city they worship in. Cello! Djembe!
Less Good: Biology as destiny perspective. That was the only thing that really rubbed me the wrong way.
Redeemer Hill Church is located at 227 Lawrence Street. There is on- and off-street parking available. This is close to several bus lines. The Sunday service goes from 10a.m. until noon.