Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwyth
Church: Mountain View Presbyterian
Location: Scottsdale, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 7 November 2021, 9:00am
A plain, simple, modern looking building with bell tower off to the side. It looks new, but I couldn’t discover any information about who the architect was or when it was built. The interior features what can only be called a mural in stained glass, the work of Meltdown Glass Art & Design of Tempe, Arizona, depicting a multi-branched river flowing through a flowery landscape. The rest of the interior is quite stark but effective, with angled pews facing a plain communion table atop a stepped platform.
The Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians is a recent breakaway from Presbyterian Church (USA), so I assume this congregation is fairly new although details about their history are hard to come by. They merged with the Scottsdale Presbyterian Church in August 2020 (as nearly as I can tell – again, information is hard to come by), which still meets on its own campus under the name The Spring Midtown. Their many groups are well documented on their website. One event that caught my attention is a catered dinner held each Wednesday evening at a very reasonable price, where a different menu is offered each week. There are two traditional worship services each Sunday, plus one contemporary service. The service at The Spring Midtown is described as ‘blended’ – a term that sends Miss Amanda off to blend somewhere else whenever she encounters it.
Scottsdale is an ultra-upper-class suburb to the east of Phoenix featuring large, expensive homes set in stunning mountain and desert landscapes. The downtown area, known as Old Town Scottsdale, is replete with shops, restaurants, bars and art galleries that attract a large thrill-seeking crowd every weekend. Scottsdale is one of the few places in the Phoenix metropolitan area that still employ traffic cameras to catch stop-light scofflaws and speeders – one of the others being neighboring Paradise Valley, also a haven for the ultra-upper-class set. Scottsdale is also known for its highly restrictive commercial sign ordinance, which makes it very hard to spot the business you’re looking for from a fast-moving car. The church is located on Mountain View Road (no surprise there) just west of Hayden Road, one of the major north-south arteries. The area is primarily residential – more plebeian than most of Scottsdale – with a smattering of businesses scattered about.
No one was identified, and pictures of clergy do not appear on their website. A lady and gentleman took the service, and I’m going to assume they were the senior pastor and one of the associate pastors. The gentleman, who also preached, was nattily attired in dark suit, blue shirt and tie; the lady in brown dress with pink sweater.
What was the name of the service?Traditional Service.
How full was the building?
Completely full. A predominantly middle aged to elderly crowd – everyone smartly dressed in their Sunday best.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Was your pew comfortable?
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The choir were seated off to the side and were quietly fussing over their music. The congregation engaged in quiet visiting as they entered and took their seats. Piano and organ were playing some tinkly and twiddly bits that segued into variations on ‘Let Us Break Bread Together,’ during which they were joined by chimes; this was followed by some other old favorites. Announcements were projected.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Good morning. Welcome to worship on this beautiful day.’ Announcements followed.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Handout. But everything we needed was projected.
What musical instruments were played?
Grand piano, organ (electronic, I think), clarinet, chimes. There was a mixed choir of about 40 voices.
Did anything distract you?
I don’t know if it was the lighting or the actual paint color, but the wall behind the communion table was bathed in a rather distracting purple. And the communion table frontal and pulpit hanging were green, although the service was clearly commemorating All Saints Day.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Sober, for the most part. After the greeting and announcements, the service opened with a rather jaunty number from the choir, accompanied by clapping and met with applause. Then the call to worship and a hymn – ‘For All the Saints.’ Confession and assurance of pardon followed. We then recited the Affirmation of Faith from the Heidelberg Catechism. Next, a choir anthem (a rather imaginative arrangement of the children’s standard ‘Jesus Loves Me’); this, too, was followed by applause. The offering was received, during which a soprano soloist sang ‘There Is a Balm in Gilead’ accompanied by piano and clarinet, and names of deceased members of the parish were projected. (Either an unusually large number of parishioners had died this past year, or they were reaching back into previous years as well.) Then the doxology. The reading from scripture was John 3:1-17 (Jesus tells Nicodemus what ‘born again’ means). Then came the sermon, followed by the Lord’s Prayer (debts/debtors) and communion (see below). Communion was in the form of morsels of bread and wee cuppies of grape juice, handed by the ushers to the first person in each row of pews, who passed them down to their fellow pew-mates. Organ and chimes reprised a much quieter version of ‘Let Us Break Bread Together’ as the elements were being distributed, followed by ‘Adoro Te Devote’ and some other communion hymns. A prayer of thanksgiving, closing hymn (‘Rock of Ages’), and blessing concluded the service.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 — I’m flipping all the cards. The pastor spoke quietly and lovingly, as a father to his family.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The pastor said that his daughter had just landed a new job, and was required to show her birth certificate. But clearly one’s very existence is proof enough of birth – a birth certificate proves nothing. But what about ‘born again’? Those who have been brought up in the Church have been immersed in its teachings. The moment when one fully embraces such teachings is not important – what is important is that the embrace happens. John has Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night – in the dark. Nicodemus was truly ‘in the dark’ concerning Jesus’ teaching. He understood the kingdom of God as a long-awaited age to come, but he did not understand that to have a part in that kingdom required a ‘birth from above.’ Nicodemus didn’t have it all figured out, but God touched his heart. Jesus didn’t care what Nicodemus’ status was in the community – none of that mattered. Only the Holy Spirit can bring about the transformation of being ‘born again.’ God, the original creator, re-creates his creation. The waters of baptism do not save us – they are a sign that points to a greater reality. Nicodemus most likely did not understand everything that Jesus told him. We, too, are beset with doubt and questions. But believe in God and you will not perish.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sermon very smoothly segued into communion. As he finished speaking, the pastor moved over to the communion table, where a loaf of bread and ceramic pitcher and chalice were waiting. The words of institution were spoken. After the congregation had received the elements as described above, the pastors took communion from the elements on the communion table.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Everyone cleared out pretty quickly as the organist played the postlude. There was to be a prayer service in the memorial garden, and I assume everyone adjourned thereto. I did not stick around, though.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None was announced. I don’t know if anything had been planned for after the memorial garden prayer service.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 — bordering on 7. I liked the quiet dignity of this service, especially how communion was handled. But my personal philosophies do not include those embraced by folk who felt it necessary to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) for the Covenant of Evangelical Presbyterians.
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 quiet dignity of communion.