It is a stark, modern building on a large campus including classrooms and offices. The architect was TMP Associates of Bloomfield, Michigan, noted primarily for school construction throughout the United States. To be honest, it doesn’t look like much from the outside. The inside is a different story, however. A spacious, comfortable lobby and lounge area opens into a plain but bright and airy sanctuary with tiered seating and a very large stage. Their website says that both the exterior and interior design are replete with Christian symbolism, but most of it is lost on the casual observer without the aid of a guidebook. The church attracts a number of performing groups, not only locally but nationwide and indeed worldwide, due to the superb acoustics of the sanctuary.
This is a traditional, conservative, family-oriented congregation with dozens of ministries and outreaches - so many, in fact, that they put on a series of classes to introduce newcomers to the many facets of congregational life. They have an especially strong music program. There are two services each Sunday, one contemporary and one "classical."
Paradise Valley is a small (15 square miles) but very affluent suburb just northeast of Phoenix. It is dominated by multi-million-dollar homes snuggled among the peaks and canyons of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve. Such notables as boxing greats Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, former Supreme Court justices Sandra Day OConnor and the late William Rehnquist, and former vice president Dan Quayle have homes in Paradise Valley, along with dozens of other prominent persons from the world of politics, sports and the arts. The church is on Stanford Drive just west of 40th Street and north of Camelback Road, and commands a splendid view of Camelback Mountain along with its unique rock formation known as the Praying Monk.
The Revd John Corpstein, executive pastor, gave the welcome, and the Revd Julian Gibb, associate pastor, preached. Jeanne Bookhout led the opening prayer; Tom Bonetto read the lesson from scripture. Guy Whatley, A.Mus.D., director of music and worship, played organ and piano. The gentleman who conducted the choir was not identified.
What was the name of the service?Classical Service.
How full was the building?
It looked to be about one-quarter full with about 150 people. Most sat toward the back. A mixture of young and old, men and women.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A gentleman at the door said hello as he handed me a service sheet.
Was your pew comfortable?
Blonde wooden church-style benches on a tiered floor. Comfortable, but I thought the stairs leading down the tiered aisles were rather steep and difficult to navigate. I can't blame people for wanting to sit near the back in order to avoid the stairs.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet visiting. Dr Whatley played an organ prelude. People who had been visiting out in the lobby entered once the service had begun.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Pastor Corpstein quoted Psalm 148: "Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights above." Then he added: "We've been granted the freedom to come together to worship the one true God."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version; Trinity Hymnal; service sheet.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, a large three-manual electronic instrument by the Allen Organ Company of Macungie, Pennsylvania; and a Steinway concert grand piano.
Did anything distract you?
Out in the lobby there were two wall clocks, each of which showed a different time and neither of which was correct. I wondered if this was one of the Christian symbols scattered throughout the building, namely a reference to Matthew 25:13 – "Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Fairly sober, with choir anthems, old familiar hymns, well-phrased prayers. Jeanne Bookhout, who led the opening prayer, was a little on the bubbly side ("Why don't we stand and sing the opening hymn?"). The meet and greet was a free-for-all, with everyone wandering at random throughout the sanctuary; fortunately it was over quickly. Dr Whatley played the hymns a tad fast, but he is a skilled musician and supported the singing well. It was obvious, though, that the congregation did not know one of them. There was a communion table set with a loaf of bread and a chalice, but there was no communion service today.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 – It started out as a 9, but I thought Pastor Gibb tried to cover far too many topics, and my attention span waned as he went on. He appeared very relaxed and at-ease, though, and spoke clearly, glancing down at his notes now and then.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
This was the second in a series treating the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus' words are extremely relevant today - a standard for Christian living. They are a call for us to enter into a relationship with Christ, not merely an exhortation to follow rules. Jesus was accused of having no regard for the law, but he had come to bring out the full meaning of the law. God's law reflects God's character. We don't have to be the strongest, cleverest, most charismatic people on earth - we just have to be the most obedient. Love of God enables love of others. Jesus wants our love - that's the heart of the Sermon on the Mount.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The choir were simply superb! They show what can be accomplished by a well trained, well disciplined choir under the direction of a skilled musician.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
This is extremely petty, but there were quite a few extra choir chairs that were not occupied. Why didn't they remove the spare chairs and let the choir spread out a bit? Everyone was bunched up center stage. But in truth, I really can't say that anything about the service was particularly hellish, except maybe the length of the sermon.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Everyone left fairly quickly during Dr Whatley's organ postlude and retired to the lounge area for refreshments. There was lots of visiting in small groups, but no one took any notice of me.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Good coffee, but not exceptional. There was also lemonade and ice water. Plates of assorted donuts had been placed at strategic locations around the lounge area, and helpers materialized with new full plates whenever one threatened to go empty.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – It's a tough call. I dont live in Paradise Valley (I wish I could afford to!), but if I lived reasonably close to this church, I would be attracted to their excellent music program. I'd want a bit more tightness in the preaching, though, and a few more liturgical touches.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The two clocks in the lobby each showing a different time.