Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwyth
Church: Grace Community Church
Location: Surprise, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 16 July 2017, 10:00am
It dates from 2002 and is a clean, conservative modern structure, easily accessible to the physically challenged. The inside is triangular, with white walls and blue-gray carpet. Various banners were on the walls. A platform held the pulpit, grand piano, and some chairs. A wooden communion table stood in front of the platform.
They have women's and men's Bible study and a men's prayer breakfast. They also support several ministries and outreaches that are documented on their website. They have one worship service each Sunday in the main sanctuary, plus a prayer service on Tuesdays in what they call the prayer room.
The city of Surprise is the northwestern-most suburb of Phoenix. The church is located in the northwestern-most area of Surprise, on Mountain View Boulevard, very close to the ring road known as the Loop 303. It is a residential area featuring large expensive homes.
The Revd Cooper McWhirter, senior pastor, preached. Elder Earl Ellsworth read the prayers and petitions and the lesson from scripture.
What was the name of the service?Worship Service.
How full was the building?
There was room for about 200; I counted about 75. An exclusively elderly crowd.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A gentleman at the door said "Good morning" as he handed me a leaflet. Inside, several people said something to the effect of "Hello, how are you, nice to have you here."
Was your pew comfortable?
Tan upholstered chair - comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Loud. Lots of visiting and talking.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Celebration Hymnal and a service leaflet. Everything we needed was projected, though.
What musical instruments were played?
Grand piano, digital spinet piano, flute. I couldn't tell if the grand piano was acoustic or a digital piano in a grand piano case (I think the former). Betti Pflepsen played both instruments. Michele Southerland was the leader of song and also sang a solo, Dan Schutte's "Here I Am, Lord," accompanied on the flute by Laurie Porter.
Did anything distract you?
A lady at the opposite end of my pew was accompanied by a service dog that acted a bit frisky at first. I am not a dog person, and found myself hoping that he would confine his friskiness to his immediate environs. Eventually he crawled under a chair and went to sleep. Betti Pflepsen, the pianist, began the service on the grand piano but moved down to the spinet instrument for Michele Southerland's solo and remained there for the rest of the service. I wondered why - both instruments sounded basically the same to my ears.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
An old school hymn sandwich. The hymns all leaned toward the syrupy, sentimental side of traditional. The prayers were all sober and straightforward as one might expect from a conservative Presbyterian congregation.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – Pastor McWhirter spoke clearly and was easy to understand thanks to the excellent sound system. I thought he rambled a bit, though, and at times approached the hellfire and brimstone tone of illustrious pastors in history.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was the second in a series entitled "Sacred and Secular." The expression "to each his own" is the theme of the modern age - everyone is free to think as he pleases. Controversy is avoided at any price. The old rule "Never discuss religion or politics at the dinner table" has never rung truer. But this is a defeatist attitude. The day is coming when God will render to each his own with absolute justice. The church has no choice but to come to grips with what is immoral or what constitutes an abandonment of God - or else it is a mere social institution, not a body with Christ as its head. The church cannot condone harmful behavior. We should grieve when we see the church defamed. The church must discipline offenders out of love, not out of judgment. What is better: to discipline an offender, or to overlook his offenses at the expense of placing his soul in jeopardy?
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
One of the hymns was one of my favorites, that old chestnut "I love to tell the story." Even the service dog liked it, barking in approbation - or maybe he was telling the story in his own voice.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
At the end of the sermon, the pastor said, "Now turn to someone you don't know, look him straight in the eye, and think about whether you want him to know God." Now granted, I am sure that everyone in the congregation knew each other and would not be uncomfortable with this. But I, as a stranger, was!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After the pastor's above-mentioned request, the musicians had us stand for the final hymn. I slipped out unobtrusively before anyone could look me in the eye or expect that I would do likewise to them.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None had been announced - I don't think any was on offer. But, as mentioned, I slipped out anyway.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 – I appreciate traditional music in a service, but I think that this branch of Presbyterianism, bordering as it seemed on hellfire and brimstone, would be a bit too traditional even for me. And I am always suspicious of elderly congregations. The city of Surprise is popular with retirees, but the demographic is not exclusively elderly. There are other churches in the vicinity that attract a younger crowd - why doesn't this one?
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Not any more so than I already do.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The service dog joining in on "I love to tell the story."