Mystery Worshipper: Angel Unaware
Church: Park Cities Presbyterian
Location: Dallas, Texas, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 9 November 2008, 9:30am
The building is an imposing limestone structure. The interior is bright, clean and airy, the result of a recent renovation. Additionally, predominantly blue and red stained glass windows line both side aisles of the sanctuary. The front of the sanctuary is graced with a brand new and majestic pipe organ; its case of dark mahogany complements the other liturgical furniture and wood trim of the sanctuary.
This is a relatively new congregation, having first met in 1991. Their first pastor was called by a unanimous vote of the congregation; that worthy served until 2006. The present pastor, their second, was called in 2008. They have dozens of ministries, all well described on their website. To mention only one that seemed special: They organize CARES teams (I couldn't find out what the acronym stands for, but apparently this is a nation-wide movement) consisting of small families or adult roommates who live in apartment communities where they serve as spiritual witnesses. (It is claimed that 95 per cent of people who live in apartments do not attend church but would do so if encouraged.) They also offer Sunday Morning Communities, a wide variety of fellowship and worship groups that form the backbone of congregational life.
Highland Park is just to the north of downtown Dallas. It is an elite, affluent and wealthy suburb. The area screams money, and the church building and campus as such fit into this neighborhood beautifully. The quiet streets are lined with magnificent estates and lawns, winding walkways, and ponds and fountains.
The Revd Mark Alan Davis, senior pastor, presided. The Revd Tim Keller, associate pastor, was the preacher.
What was the name of the service?Order for the Worship of God.
How full was the building?
Nearly full, including the rear gallery. The congregation were a healthy mix of gender, age and race, though the people appeared economically homogeneous. Most every gentleman wore a jacket, starched shirt, and tie. Women wore stylish, tastefully-restrained dresses. No one dared wear open-toed shoes.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
This was the friendliest church of any I have ever encountered! The ushers, easily identified by blue silk ribbons under their name badges and atop their pin-striped suits, were chatty and helpful. A lady in the welcome center was eager to assist me when I identified myself as a first-time visitor. Additionally, many persons extended a handshake before, during and after the service and personally welcomed us as visitors to their church.
Was your pew comfortable?
Very comfortable, if not indulgent. The sanctuary has been refurbished and included slick new wooden benches that feature plenty of leg room and red velvet cushions to sit upon. Further, as the pews rest upon a slightly sloped marble floor, the sight lines were excellent.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
One word: electric. People arrived by the droves through each of the sanctuary's five entrances. The pews filled up quickly. The near-capacity crowd certainly generated pre-service excitement and expectation. There was no pre-service music, but a lot of visiting, embracing and handshaking going on.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome to Park Cities Presbyterian Church." This by the senior pastor, appropriately robed in an all-black Geneva frock.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Presbyterian Hymnal and a service sheet.
What musical instruments were played?
The new pipe organ, an opus of Schoenstein & Co. of San Francisco, and a Steinway piano.
Did anything distract you?
Most distractions were positive ones: the morning sun shining through the magnificent stained glass windows, which in turn flooded the space with blotches of blue and crimson. The presence of well-dressed and mannered children. A brilliantly lit and impeccably clean and maintained sanctuary. Parishioners who were genuinely excited to be coming to worship. One minor distraction was the gentleman seated ahead of us who had to exit and return no less than three times during the service. We wished he had chosen a seat by the aisle to facilitate his frequent departures and re-entrances. There was also a brief microphone glitch during the opening prayer.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The robed choir processed into a congregation of thousands singing "Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty" (to the customary tune of Nicea) in full-voiced four-part harmony. It was a moment I shall not soon forget. The children's choir then called us to worship via a lush setting of Psalm 131 ("My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty"). But the liturgy itself detoured somewhat confusingly into a laundry list of miscellaneous announcements and commercials for church activities. However, once we were finally asked to greet each other in peace, things quickly settled down to dignified Presbyterian, with style and spirit.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 – This was, sad to say, the point in the service where things began to fall apart. The expository sermon offered little hope or grace. I was mostly surprised at the "Christ against culture" undertone: we were encouraged more to fight the evil government and our perverse culture rather than to engage and transform it for God's glory. The presidential election results had just been announced, and it seemed clear that this was a very disappointed Republican congregation. I could not help but wonder what kind of sermon would have been preached had John McCain been elected President instead of Barack Obama.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The associate pastor's text was 1 Peter 2, where Peter reminds us to subject ourselves to governmental institutions ever mindful that our true citizenship is in heaven. The associate pastor urged us (at least three times) to obey "evil government and its pagan leaders" while keeping our eyes on the heavenly prize awaiting us.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Without a doubt, the children's choir. As their sweet tones died away, my companion whispered, "Can we go now? We've had church!" After this, I'd say the magnificent singing of hymns in four-part harmony (one praise song was a notable exception).
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The sermon was anti-climatic (see above), as already stated. Further, I was appalled that on the Sunday after the national election not only was our new President not prayed for, but his name was never even once mentioned the entire hour.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Many stayed and attempted to enjoy the organ postlude; just as many stayed and tried to shout over it. We enjoyed the entirety of the postlude, but as the next service was about to commence, we were politely asked to carry our conversation into the vestibule.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Scalded and burnt. Presumably the coffee had been prepared very early that morning and was decidedly past its Best By date. I opted instead for a glass of fresh icewater and used silver tongs to plop a fresh lemon wedge into my drink as garnish.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I'd be curious to know whether future sermons would preach the full counsel of the gospel, including such fundamental themes as grace, hope, and the presence of God's glory in every area of life – or if there'd be more talk of our "evil government and pagan leaders." But even if that didn't pull me in, I'd return just to hear that children's choir sing again.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Oh yes. And thrilled to be part of a vibrant congregation committed to growth through traditional worship, beautifully rendered. More churches could learn from their decided and successful approach.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
A beautiful service of praise interrupted by "commercials" smack dab in the middle of it all.