Rev Colin Knapp of Pilgrim Congregational in Oak Park

A pastor giving his first sermon to a new congregation on YouTube is a bit like a newly married couple postponing their honeymoon in Paris because of COVID-19 and making the best of it by watching a Rick Steves travel show about France.

That social distancing, however, did not seem to dampen the excitement felt by the members of Pilgrim Congregational Church, 460 Lake St., as they anticipated the Easter Sunday bow by their new senior pastor, Rev. Colin Knapp.  

On the one hand Knapp used the word “bewildering” to describe on Good Friday how he pictured what giving his first sermon to a camera in an empty sanctuary on Easter Sunday would be like.  “I’ve never done anything like that before,” he said, “and I think that’s true for most people.”

On the other hand, he said, “I’m really excited to be in Oak Park and to be in such a lovely congregation and I’m excited to connect with the wider community.” 

Aware of the truth of McLuhan’s contention that “the medium is the message,” Knapp used the virtual nature of  YouTube as well as the current public health crisis as the context for proclaiming to his virtual congregation the Easter message that “even in moments when we are perplexed and confused and uncomfortable that God is still with us and that God is still bringing about new life even in the midst of awful conditions.”

Debbie Kent is the moderator (president) of the congregation and was the chair of the Senior Pastor Search Committee. She has been intimately involved in how Pilgrim has handled the period between senior pastors.  “We all came together during this transition period,” she said, “and we have had a lot of discussions about who we are and where we want to go.”

In a press release she sent out at the beginning of April, she quoted Knapp as a way of explaining why she believes he is a good fit for Pilgrim at this time. She wrote, “This is what drives me today — helping people put their faith, which is often mysterious and unexplainable, into hands-on action,” Knapp said. “It’s that process of realizing the critical connection between our spirituality and our sense of justice and mercy.”

Rev. Gloria Cox, a Pilgrim member for 25 years and the congregation’s associate pastor for young people for the past five years, used the metaphor of roots and fruits to explain why she believes Knapp is a good fit.  She said that Pilgrim in particular and the denomination to which it belongs (United Church of Christ) generally “has been very action oriented [fruits] but we take spirituality [roots] almost as a given.  I think that in order for us to grow to the next level we need to water those roots so they can bear more fruit, and that’s why I think Colin is the perfect person to help us do that.”

Knapp also believes that his extremely diverse resume was one reason why the congregation was attracted to him.  Growing up in a non-church going family, he came to faith at a church camp at the age of 16.  Before coming to Pilgrim he has served in a Vineyard Church in Hyde Park, a rural Methodist Church in North Carolina, LaSalle Street in Chicago — which he referred to as a “a very progressive emergent post-evangelical congregation — and Glencoe Union Church, an interdenominational congregation located on Chicago’s North Shore.

He laughed and said, “I can talk Christian to a lot of different types of people.”

Knapp and his wife Molly have an 18-month-son named Jude.  They live, at least for the time being, in Chicago.

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...