First Congregational United Church of Christ, Phoenix, Arizona, USA

First Congregational, Phoenix, Arizona, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Fading Lights
Church: First Congregational
Location: Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 25 January 2009, 10:30am

The building

The building is over 90 years old, which is extremely old for Arizona. It is a traditional New England style congregational church with a large steeple. There is a courtyard area which separates the church from the fellowship hall and Sunday school rooms.

The church

The church has a very strong outreach to the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transsexual community as well as to the border community of the United States and Mexico. They also sponsor ministries for the homeless as well as collecting food.

The neighborhood

The church is located on North Second Street south of McDowell Road, one of the older sections of the city. The area is an odd mix of older residential properties and business offices. The church's unusual architecture sticks out as you're not likely to see a New England style church among the contemporary style of Phoenix. The very modern Phoenix skyline is visible from the entrance to the church.

The cast

The Revd Dr Stephen Wayles, pastor, wearing a multicolored stole. He was assisted by Jeffrey D. Dirrim, M.Div., pastoral assistant, who was vested in alb and cincture. (Mr Dirimm was due to be ordained in two days' time.) Sue Hodge-Parker, Sunday school teacher, gave the children's sermon.

What was the name of the service?


How full was the building?

About three-quarters full. The building can probably seat 200 and I'd say there were about 125 people there. The children left for Sunday school right after the children's sermon.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes, I was welcomed twice at the door with handshakes. At the start of the service, the pastor asked newcomers to raise their hands to receive a gift, which was a wrapped package containing a coffee cup, candy, and a magnet with the church's name.

Was your pew comfortable?

Absolutely. It was well padded. There were no kneelers.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Very noisy. Everyone was talking and many people got up to walk around and see their friends. There were two infants with healthy sets of lungs who made their presence known!

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning, everybody!" After that, there was a call and response that wasn't printed in the worship guide's order of service. It went something like: "God is good. Our God is still speaking. Our God is still speaking to us."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The UCC's New Century Hymnal was in the pews and was used for two hymns. This must be the largest hymnal I've ever seen. I flipped through and noticed many of the hymns used inclusive language. Also, the vast majority of the hymns are contemporary. The first one that was sung was #173, "You Have Come Down to the Lakeshore." This hymn is from Spain and the words were printed in both Spanish and English. Your Mystery Worshipper had a tough time following the lines in English as well as trying to sight-read this unfamiliar hymn. Also, each pew had a laminated card with emergency fire instructions printed on it. It reminded me of the emergency instruction card you find on an airplane. I've never seen this in a church before.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ and piano. The organ was a fine instrument, but the piano didn't seem to fill the sanctuary. It had a tinny sound and didn't seem to be a good choice to accompany the first hymn. There was also a choir of about 20.

Did anything distract you?

The building was hot and stuffy. I'm sure this building must have air conditioning, as the temperatures in Phoenix are well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. I wanted to grab a robe and sit up with the choir under the fan that circulated right above them. Also, the acolyte was a young child. He entered the nave, but his torch wasn't lit, and he had to detour off to the side of the altar to light it. Then, in his enthusiasm to light the candles, he came within an inch of setting the floral arrangement on fire!

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

It was a typical UCC blended style service. This was not a eucharist, although communion was available after the service from presanctified elements. The hymns were all contemporary, but they weren't pop music either. Most of the language was inclusive but it wasn't hyper-politically correct, and God was referred to as "him" several times. The Lord's Prayer was changed to: "And forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." Naturally, your Mystery Worshipper blurted out "trespasses."

Exactly how long was the sermon?

5 minutes (children's sermon); 30 minutes (adult sermon), or about 35 minutes if you include the time Pastor Wayles spent reading the third and fourth chapters of the book of Jonah before he began his sermon.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

7 – The pastor was very animated in his style. He was wearing a headset microphone and had a very commanding presence. Although 30 minutes isn't my idea of a compact sermon, he kept the people's attention. However, I kept checking the bulletin and wondering how long the sermon was going to go on, as there was a baptism as well as a confirmation after the sermon.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The children's sermon was based on the gospel reading, Mark 1:14-20 (Jesus calls his first disciples). The adult sermon was focused almost exclusively on the book of Jonah and was titled, "Answering God's Call – or Not!" The main point of the sermon was that we can't run away from God. We can't ignore his instructions even when we don't like what we hear.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I liked how the sermon was based on the book of Jonah. The Jonah story is often told in Sunday school, but once you're an adult, it is ignored. As soon as I saw the gospel lesson was Mark 1:14-20, I was hoping we wouldn't beat the dead horse of "fish for men" vs "fish for people." Not here. Also, the dismissal. I've never seen a UCC pastor make the sign of the cross until now.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The psalm, gospel, and Old Testament lessons were taken from The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Also, all three hymns were very difficult to sing. The congregation didn't seem familiar with them either, so their singing was less than enthusiastic. I felt like I was in a high school choral competition when you're handed a piece of music and asked to sight-read it on demand.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

No chance of that happening. I think the entire congregation as well as both pastors came up to talk to me. Members even engaged me in conversation in the bathroom!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was coffee, water, and fruit punch as well as pretzels and some other light snacks. I lucked out as I saw one of the volunteers carrying a bag of the coffee so I was able to see that it was fairly traded.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

8 – It is certainly worth considering. I'd have to visit a few more times to see if The Message is always used and if the church ever sings any traditional hymns.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes. The United Church of Christ worships in a variety of ways. I'm always happy to visit a UCC church and see how that church approaches worship. Also, this church welcomes newcomers. You're not going to get an ugly glare if you're sitting in someone's favorite space here.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The young acolyte's first go at candle-lighting!

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