According to a 2010 census, three-quarters of the population in Hillsdale County didn’t claim a religious affiliation.
These numbers motivate the new pastor of the Hillsdale First Presbyterian Church, Rev. Scott Cress, who recently made his home in Hillsdale. Cress said he is looking forward to cultivating new relationships within the community through the church.
“A majority of people in Hillsdale county, at least according the the latest Census, reported themselves as ‘nones’, meaning no formal religious affiliation,” Cress said. “This subset of life has been growing and in Hillsdale the number is somewhere in the 30,000 range. It’s not a big county, but that is a big number.”
Cress and his wife Shana recently moved from West Lafayette, Indiana where he was an associate pastor. Together they have three kids, including a six-month old son.
As one can imagine, Cress said, moving was quite an adventure.
“We have boxes of stuff all through the house now, still trying to sort through toys,” he said.
In his previous position as an associate pastor, Cress was not in a position of preaching on a weekly basis. Wanting to preach more regularly, he and his wife began to seek other opportunities, including one in South Dakota and another in Chicago, Illinois. But when it came to making a decision, they chose Hillsdale for its community.
“I just met the people here, and I really liked them,” Cress said. “There’s not really a great story there, but I just liked the community and appreciated a lot of things about it.”
Despite living only a few miles away from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana before coming to Hillsdale, Cress said that he and his wife do not intentionally pursue college towns, but “it just sort of works out that way.”
“We tend to like culture that is created by a university or college,” he said. “It tends to create a lot of opportunities that my family and I are attracted to and interested in.”
One of Cress’s major focuses as he begins pastoring the First Presbyterian Church will be connecting with Hillsdale College.
“Over the last several years, probably a couple decades, we haven’t really been a church that has strong relationships with college students,” Cress said. “We love having them be a part of our life, but they haven’t been a significant part of our congregation. I would love to see the relationship between the church and the college grow in new ways.”
Some of his outreach ideas include inviting them to church, hosting Bible studies, and providing college students with home-cooked meals. He says there are a lot of people in the congregation who would love to do that. As far as a Bible study goes, he would like to explore political theology.
“I don’t know if this is stereotyping Hillsdale College a little bit, but I would like to study questions of the Bible and politics and faith in culture,” he said. “Given the values of Hillsdale in some ways, I think those [topics] would be really pertinent to study.”
Professor of history Thomas Conner, has belonged to the First Presbyterian Church since the early 1960s. He later joined the Hillsdale First Presbyterian Church in 1996, where he is now the Clerk of Session and has served as a church Elder for several terms.
“I am extremely pleased that Rev. Scott Cress accepted the call to become our pastor at First Presbyterian Church, and I am quite certain that the entire congregation feels the same way,” Conner said. “Pastor Cress’ young family, youthful energy, fresh perspectives, and solidly biblical preaching are great assets to our church family, and we are looking forward to following his lead along the path that God opens up to us.”
Professor of politics Kevin Portteus has been attending the church for ten years and echoes the sentiments of Conner.
“Pastor Cress brings new energy and commitment to our church,” he said. “We’re excited to have him as our minister.”
Other than connecting with the college, community outreach is another aspect of ministry Cress would like to pursue on during his time as pastor at the First Presbyterian Church. Hillsdale county has a population of about 46,000, and given the such large number of “nones”, there is a great amount of people to serve and reach out to. The church is an organization like no other, and its community ought to be preserved, expanded and strengthened, he said.
“The spiritual aspect aside, there are a lot of other benefits to being a part of a church: social benefits, friendships, and you’ve gotta think there’s a lot of people who don’t have that meaningful sense of connection with other people,” Cress said. “I think people overlook the depth of community that’s available in a smaller congregation.”