Mystery Worshipper: Angel Unaware
Church: First Presbyterian
Location: Royal Oak, Michigan, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 1 April 2012, 10:30am
The cornerstone of this large cement-gray church dates the building to 1953. One enters via a very small rear vestibule that opens to a central aisle leading to the chancel. The sanctuary has divided choir stalls and a traditional-looking "altar" placed against the wall under a vaulted ceiling. It bore two candlesticks and a cross. The interior walls are of painted cinder block, interrupted by several narrow lancelet stained glass windows. The space is poorly lit, but there were at least four light bulbs burnt out or not switched on. Frankly, the most lasting memory of the space was the smell: stale, 1950s "old church" mustiness!
They describe themselves on their website as Christ-centered and family-friendly, with a friendly and growing congregation. There are several ministries listed there also, but frankly I was struck by the number of activities mentioned in the bulletin that seemed to have little to do with the mission of the church: Ukrainian Easter egg decorating, quilting bee, soup supper, baseball outing, and a class on rain gardens and soil conservation.
Royal Oak is a trendy, northwest suburb of Detroit, and a magnet community for young urban professionals who are drawn to the community's lively downtown bar scene and ample studio and loft living opportunities. The church is located one block from Woodward Avenue, the first paved street in America, which Henry Ford provided for his suburban employees to travel to and from the Ford factory in their Model Ts.
I don't know. The church's clergy were listed on the worship folder, but the three who led the service never identified themselves save the preacher, who was the senior pastor, the Revd Thomas F. Rice. He appeared very uncomfortable in his Geneva gown, stole, and over-the-ear microphone competing with his eyeglass frame. He looked all the world like a bird wanting to molt.
What was the name of the service?Service for the Lord's Day.
How full was the building?
This was the second service of the day, and the sanctuary was loosely half full mostly older parishioners who carried a seat cushion in one hand and a large-print liturgy and palm frond in the other.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Was your pew comfortable?
No. Solid wood with an uncomfortable angle for the back and behind (which explains why many were toting their own seat cushions). Additionally, there was very little room to stretch the legs, as my knees were against the hymnal rack.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
When I arrived five minutes before the start, I was about the tenth person there. I seated myself, as the usher was too busy passing out the seat cushions, large-print liturgies, palm fronds, and copies of the sermon (read on!).
What were the exact opening words of the service?
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Hymbook (1955 edition) and Worship and Rejoice. However, and confusingly, it was not indicated in the liturgy which song was from which book. By trial and error I deduced that the songs were exclusively from Worship and Rejoice.
What musical instruments were played?
A pipe organ under the excellent command of Joseph Jackson. Also leading the liturgy was a 30-member robed choir. The choir selections were appropriate, but as most of the voices were older, the collective vibratos wreaked havoc on the pitch.
Did anything distract you?
The overwhelming odor of "wet sidewalk" mixed with "old, musty church", for lack of a better descriptor. Seriously, someone needs to throw open the windows for a week and steam-clean and thoroughly dry all the carpets ... before replacing the burnt out light bulbs! The choir appeared to be constantly in motion. First, they processed down the side aisle to participate in the opening hymn. Next, they recessed to the back of the church to join the clergy in their entrance procession. Having arrived at their choir stalls, they processed to the chancel steps to offer the first anthem, the choir director scurrying behind toting a portable music stand. During the offertory they moved again, this time huddling together in the center chancel. And so it went until they finally recessed for good.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
High Presbyterian. When the entrance procession arrived, the ministers genuflected. The liturgy followed the classic order for morning prayer, but with some perplexing twists. For example, the first reading was from Psalm 118, and the second reading was from the psalter (Psalm 118!). Thus we heard the same psalm twice in succession; once as the first reading and immediately again as the psalm. The prayer of confession sounded more appropriate for Advent than for Palm Sunday, e.g. we confessed that we were not "praying for the coming of the King" lest we be disappointed "when the Chosen One appears."
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – Here's the strange part: the mornings sermon was actually on the website before Sunday, and a transcript was offered at the door prior to the service, passed out with the cushions, large-print bulletins and palm fronds – a lot of luggage to tote to the pew! We knew exactly what was going to be preached. The preacher read the transcript verbatim (skipping a few paragraphs, though) while most folks silently followed along.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Jesus coming to Jerusalem on a donkey (an animal that has the shape of a cross in the fur of its mane) was in complete contrast to other political parades of the day. In fact, one could even say Jesus looked foolish. Today, also, we are to "make fools" of ourselves for God's kingdom.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The inspired playing of the organ to accompany the hymns (never mind that the singing itself from the congregation was lackluster at best or non-existent at worst). I was relieved and blessed to be singing out of a hymnal with fine organ accompaniment rather than, say, singing off of projection screens with a praise band.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Watching a Presbyterian minister reverence a "high altar." I still cringe. And the choir could really benefit by taking a break from the week's choreography and use the time instead to work with a vocal coach to improve tonal quality and pitch.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing. There was no written or verbal invitation to coffee or fellowship, so I simply took off after the organ postlude.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
What after-service coffee?
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – Not sure. I'd go back for the organ playing. But I'd first want to volunteer to be on the building committee to air out the place and brighten it up a bit. It was difficult to be focused and worshipful in that dark, dank space.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
That the Presbyterian minister genuflected upon his entrance to the sanctuary! John Knox is turning over in his Edinburgh grave, I'm sure.