Mystery Worshipper: Haywood
Church: American Church in Paris
Location: Paris, France
Date of visit: Sunday, 16 November 2008, 11:00am
The congregation was founded in 1814 as the first church of American origin established on foreign soil. The present building, a large neo-Gothic structure, dates from the 1920s and replaces an earlier church. The building includes the church itself and lots of anciliary rooms. The interior features an attractive sanctuary with beautiful stained glass all around, but it maintains a light and airy interior. There is a small garden just inside the church that adds to the peaceful atmosphere. The organ is in the centre of the church at the front, and the two pulpits on either side of it. The pews all face the front and a balcony is situated at the back.
The church has a history of serving the English and French speaking communities in Paris but is a gathering of people from all nations, with many cultures, races and backgrounds. It is also a cultural and community centre and provides a variety of activities, including bi-lingual nursery schools, aerobics and basketball. There are two traditional services each Sunday, with holy communion celebrated each week at the earlier service and once monthly at the later one. There is also a contemporary service each Sunday afternoon. They are sponsored and supported by the American and Foreign Christian Union.
The church is situated in the heart of Paris, right by the river Seine and not far from a host of famous landmarks, including the Place de la Concorde, the Eiffel Tower and Musee D'Orsay. This is the district known as Rive Gauche, famous for its cafes, shops, picturesque streets and marketplaces. Just opposite is the mooring for the famous Bateaux-Mouches sightseeing boats.
The Revd Dr Scott Herr, senior pastor.
What was the name of the service?Worship: Gathering in God's Presence.
How full was the building?
Mostly full - lots of people but not too squashed in.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A man with a friendly smile said, "Good morning, sir" and handed me a notice sheet. After I had settled in my pew, another man pushed his way past me without even so much as an excusez-moi. The peace was not done with enthusiasm – just a case of going through the motions: no invitation to say who I was, whether I was visiting or where I was from.
Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was cushioned and comfortable just perfect! I could have nodded off if the service hadn't been so engaging.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Not many people were there when I arrived and it was rather quiet. The organ was playing and it felt like a concert – beautiful music. The light was shining through the splendid stained glass. It was a wonderful moment. People started to arrive just before the service and continued arriving after it had started.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"The psalmist said, 'I will lift up mine eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help.'"
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymns, Psalms and Spiritual Songs, a publication of the Westminster John Knox Press of Louisville, Kentucky, USA.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ and hand bells. The organ was rather loud and the hymns were played fast (not a bad thing in my view). At times, though, it did seem as though the congregation were accompanying the organ rather than the other way round.
Did anything distract you?
Their website states quite tersely: "Cell phones will not function during the services." So at least that distraction was absent. However, a couple in front of me compensated for the inconvenience by talking incessantly during the entire service sheer bad manners!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Rather formal but friendly and open, following the order of service printed on the handout. It did seem a little distant given that the building and the congregation were large. However, good participation from the congregation. There were some lovely extemporaneous prayers led by members of the congregation, and some short talks. One such talk was about the church's mission in France and further afield, which suggested the church was aware of the world in which they live. The hymns were traditional it would have been good to have one or two more modern songs to balance it more.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Pastor Herr wove a wonderful variety of stories, Bible references, personal experiences and fun into his talk, relating the text to everyday life. It was a well crafted sermon that kept the congregation's attention throughout (although clearly not the couple in front of me, who didn't let such a dérangement as a sermon interrupt their conversation).
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The title was "Risking it all" based on the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-28. It was about trusting God with our money and our lives. The master takes all the risk and it's a story of extravagance and grace. Many of us keep stewardship and spirituality in two different rooms, and many live as disciples but it costs them nothing. The third servant in the story didn't take the risk and didn't receive the grace. No risk, no reward.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The thought-provoking sermon was heavenly: a difficult story to preach on, but it shone in a new light which was related to our everyday lives.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The wonderful handbell ringing of "Morning has broken" during the offering a real moment of worship – was ruined for me by the applause at the end. I had visited this church once before, and at that time the bulletin had asked for no applause as this was a service of worship. Perhaps this was supposed to be a concert after all?
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing. People were talking to each other but not to visitors (there were several other people hanging around looking lost too). Clearly the talks on mission and risk in the service were well chosen, but it seems that the congregation are not even able to take the small risk of talking to a stranger in their own church.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Great cup of coffee in a pottery cup. Not sure if the refreshments were fairly traded, certainly no signs to say so. I thought the American influence might have meant there would be cookies, but sadly I couldn't find any! Ah well, probably a healthier option!
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – The choice may be limited if you want an English speaking congregation in Paris. The preaching and the worship were good, but that sense of isolation after the service did not encourage one to be a part of it all.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
The music and the preaching most certainly.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
I'll remember the sermon for a long time. Lots to think about and work out in everyday life.