Mystery Worshipper: Theo Lo Gaster
Church: Burwood Heights Uniting
Location: Burwood East, Victoria, Australia
Date of visit: Sunday, 18 April 2010, 9:30am
An unusual A-frame building with a tower off to one side capped by a tall steeple. The church is hidden among native trees on a very busy suburban intersection. It's often referred to as "that ugly church opposite K-Mart Plaza" by locals. I found the inside remarkable for, of all things, the floorboards – plain but highly polished and obviously well cared for.
The people there are mostly on the older end of things, but like many Uniting Church parishes they seem to be heavily involved in community work, nursing homes and outreach, etc. One of the ladies I got talking to over tea and bickies mentioned that they don't have much there for children. They do sponsor activities such as movie going, exercise and bushwalking groups. Crossroads, a Christian fellowship for people with disabilities, meets every third Saturday of the month. There are two services each Sunday: a traditional morning service and informal evening worship.
Burwood East is a suburb of Melbourne and is the site of the first K-Mart store to open in Australia. The facility is still the largest K-Mart in Australia. The church is located at a busy spot opposite the major shopping centre that houses K-Mart. There is a tramline right out the front. Despite this, the church was relatively quiet and peaceful.
The Revd Bill Perry. It was announced that Mr Perry will be visiting for a few months whilst the pastor is on sabbatical in Sri Lanka.
What was the name of the service?Traditional Service
How full was the building?
More than three-quarters full – I'd say about 150 people or so. I was one of the young ones and I'm mid-40s. There was one solitary child, which made the children's address nice but a bit redundant.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was formally greeted at the door by Joyce, the welcomer for the day. Several other people spontaneously welcomed me and made sure I had a service order. Everyone was very friendly and pleased to see someone new.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes – with a nice pew-long cushion made for easy sitting. The pews are traditional wooden ones with no kneelers (I don't think this church is much into kneeling!).
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was comfortable. Piped organ music, hymns mostly, was running quietly in the background. Most people stayed and talked in the foyer; their talk drifted into the church a bit, but not annoyingly so. Some people sat and chatted quietly in the pews; others sat and reflected. It was relaxing.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The visiting minister, Mr Perry, began: "I have been working overseas for many years..."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Together in Song hymnal, but the words were all projected onto an overhead screen. Having said that, I found the book helpful, as I didn't know the hymns and needed to follow the notes. The Bible reading was also projected, as were other helpful slides to show which part of the service we were up to.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ and piano, I think, although I could only hear the organ. Very traditional accompaniment.
Did anything distract you?
This is going to sound awful, but I believe the man in front of me may have had Parkinson's disease, as his head moved constantly. He kept drawing my eye. There was a lot of talking from the minister, and apart from singing there was little by way of verbal participation for the congregation. So it was easy to drift off a bit.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was traditional, respectful, what I would imagine is typical low church style. The minister seemed to want more engagement from the congregation. He tried to pep-talk us into really singing the final hymn with more gusto than had previously been in evidence.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – Mr Perry has a very quiet, wordy style; he's no holy roller or street preacher. He has the air of an academic or a contemplative. I think anyone younger than 50, or not yet a Christian, would tune out pretty quickly, no matter how good his sermon is. He is clearly an admirer of John Wesley, as will be seen, and waxed lyrical about him.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Mission/evangelism, and seeing the opportunity to evangelise in everyday life. He began with 10 minutes of praise for John Wesley, including mention of Wesley's evangelising trips around the UK, the house he lived in at Cornwall, the chair he sat in – you get the drift. He then turned to a very interesting lesson on Paul – where he lived, how he came to be a Pharisee, how he got permission to travel to Damascus to persecute Christians, and how he placed himself in exile in Arabia after his conversion due to the shame it brought on his parents and the fact he would be very unwelcome in Jerusalem. I liked having these pieces put together. Finally, he went on to try to convince us to see everyday life as a form of mission, challenging us to work out what it was about this church that attracted us and use that as a way of inviting others to come in. All a bit disconnected, but well spoken nonetheless.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The singing was nice, the vibe was calm and respectful, and people seemed to be genuinely devoted.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I come from a liturgical background, and the absence of liturgy meant there were few opportunities other than singing for me to engage in. I didn't feel a spiritual connection at all, and I doubt someone not yet Christian who stumbled upon the service would find that connection either. It was more of a fellowship meeting for the already converted.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I didn't get a chance to look lost. The man next to me in the pew struck up a conversation and invited me to have a cuppa. There was also a long wait to get out of the church. Everyone stopped to shake the minister's hand, and he had quite a chinwag with each. Being the only new person, I stuck out like a sore thumb and was looked after well.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Tea, coffee and bickies. All well organised and pleasant: you went to a servery and the rostered-on ladies helped you to whatever you wanted. The tea was nice and hot, and there was plenty of opportunity to chat.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – This church is lovely, but it's not for me. I found it hard to connect spiritually, and there is not a lot going on for my kids. While it was lovely to be welcomed so warmly, I did feel one man went over the top, getting me an invitation to a discussion group and standing over me while I signed the visitor's book. This made me feel a bit intimidated, but I know he meant well.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes and no. I can see why mainstream churches are dying and we are fragmenting into subgroups. Unless you grow up in a tradition, it can be hard to relate to why some things are done a certain way. But I liked the lesson on Paul and felt that this church is true to the gospel and Jesus. You can't say fairer than that!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The plain polished floorboards. Also Paul's history. Finally, that we shouldn't be so eager to get new people in that we actually frighten them away!