Mystery Worshipper: Benny Diction
Church: First Presbyterian
Location: Fresno, California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 20 August 2006, 8:30am
A large, traditional looking building, almost Anglican in appearance, with beautiful stained glass. Inside, a very high ceiling gives a feeling of spaciousness. There was a pulpit and a stage area with some musical instruments set out as if for a praise band, but no band appeared. Attached to the church are numerous classrooms and halls, and negotiations are underway to buy an empty warehouse next door to expand into as well.
As is true of many California cities, Fresno is spread out over a wide area, and the church attracts people from all over Fresno. There are two Sunday services, one at 8.30 and another at 11.00, with an "Education Hour" in between. Their website describes the many ministries in which they are engaged.
What neighborhood? There were some other buildings around, including some houses, but this is an empty neighborhood. I'd almost have to use the word "bland" as the neighborhood seemed neither safe nor threatening, neither affluent nor rundown. The church and associated buildings dominate several blocks, and opposite the church is a very large car park owned by the church. So in some sense the church is the neighborhood.
Various people popped in and out of the service, but the main cast of characters seemed to be the Revd James S. Evans, senior pastor, who preached the sermon; Jamie Franklin, who led the singing; the Revd Paul Armstrong, parish associate, who led the prayers of adoration and the Lord's Prayer; and Marjorie Miller, who led the prayers for the preached Word. Marcie York, children's director, spoke about a network of religious clubs for children known as AWANA – I'll have more to say about that later.
What was the name of the service?Worship Celebration.
How full was the building?
About half full, probably 250 people.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. We entered the sanctuary about five minutes late, as I was badly in need of the facilities upon arrival. But someone shook our hands, gave us an expertly produced order of service and notice sheet, and quietly directed us to some vacant pews at the back.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, it was. It was wooden but wasn't too narrow and the back of the pew wasn't straight. Just the right angle.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
As mentioned, we were late, so I'm afraid I can't say.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
We missed the opening, as I had to visit the toilet. I was somewhat surprised to find that the service was piped in via a loudspeaker, so I was at least able to hear the first hymn being introduced while finishing my ablutions!
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There were hymn books, but the hymns were in the order of service and so the books weren't needed. The words were also projected onto a screen. Pew Bibles were furnished, as well as index cards and pencils, presumably for taking notes (or to pass messages to neighbors if you got bored).
What musical instruments were played?
There was a pipe organ that was used for some hymns and also an electric piano. The stage was set up for a worship band but they did not play at this service (apparently they play at the 11.00 service).
Did anything distract you?
The acoustics were quite reverberant and rather uneven. When someone was speaking, their voices tended either to boom or fade in and out. There was a PA system but it didn't seem to help. (Then again maybe I'm just getting old and deaf.)
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was fairly formal, but this is fine for me. I liked the structure of hymns of praise and adoration, prayers of adoration, thanksgiving and confession, followed by the traditional Lord's Prayer and the ministry of the Word. It felt like a good old-fashioned Methodist hymn sandwich with which I am most familiar.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Quite laid back and chatty. Friendly and engaging.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was an exploration of love. The English word "love" is inadequate to describe the emotion fully, as we can devalue it by saying that we love our dog or we love our car. In Hebrew the word is much more robust. The language of love is not always sweet. Love can mean giving hard advice to Christian friends and family, e.g. explaining the pitfalls of having a non-Christian partner.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
It is difficult to single out one thing. Attending this service was memorable and pleasurable. But if I must, I would say that the organist concluding the service with the finale from Handel's Organ Concerto No. 5 was heavenly.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
That's easy: AWANA. The children's director, Marcie York, stood up to explain what AWANA is (a network of religious children's clubs) and what the acronym stands for (a reference to 2 Timothy 2:15 – "Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed"). That's fine, but then she dragged three children up to the stage, two of whom clearly did not want to be there, to talk about the club. The third child took the prize – a young boy with that freshly scrubbed "Mom and apple pie" look about him who, at Marcie's prompting, recited the names of all of the books of the Bible by heart. I had flashbacks of my own Sunday school experiences as a child when I was dragged on stage to do similar things!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We were shown outside to where coffee and Danish pastries were being served. It was a typical warm central California day, with clear blue skies. Many people chatted with us. We were then invited to attend one of the classes at the Education Hour, which we did – an excellent session on the Book of Proverbs led by a church member named Dennis.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Terrific. There was freshly squeezed California orange juice as well as coffee. Muffins and Danish pastries were also available.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – Sadly it is 5,000 miles from home. But this was a church where we felt loved and genuinely welcome. We liked the Education Hour program idea and the firm Biblical base of preaching.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Very much so. We felt we had worshipped God and we came away having learned more about him as well.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The Education Hour.