Photo: Google Earth A plain looking rectangular building with thin needle-like steeple. The interior is plain but pleasant, with cream-colored walls and wooden pews angled in toward a simple communion table backed by a cross and flanked by projection screens.
The Christian Reformed Church split in 1857 from what was then the Dutch Reformed Church (now the Reformed Church in America) due to what they perceived to be departures from the traditional principles of Calvinism. Adopting the name Holland Reformed Church in 1859, they went through several name changes until finally settling on the Christian Reformed Church in North America in 1974. A closed community at first, they have since the early 1900s striven to forge relationships with other Christians. Phoenix Christian Reformed Church has adult and youth ministries plus Bible study. A group called Outreach (quoting from their website) ‘meets periodically to be the hands and feet of Jesus in our local and global communities through a variety of projects.’ There is a Sunday service both live and live-streamed, and a midweek devotional posted to YouTube.
They are located on 24th Street north of Thomas Road, a major east-west thoroughfare through the Phoenix area, in what appears to be a working-class residential neighborhood. Plain, clean-scrubbed single family homes predominate, with a smattering of apartment and condominium complexes and bargain eateries thrown in, including a Chinese restaurant with the wonderful name of … no, it’s too naughty for Miss Amanda to say, but Google Maps will satisfy the curious.
The pastor, wearing white shirt and tie and black slacks, but no jacket.
What was the name of the service?Christmas Eve Worship Service.
How full was the building?
Fourteen people were watching the service on YouTube. There were people in the church, but I couldn’t count how many, as the nave remained dark for the entire service.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Was your pew comfortable?
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A medley of Christmas carols was quietly played. The church remained in darkness, and the Star of Bethlehem was projected, followed by an invitation to ‘use this time to prepare your hearts and minds.’
What were the exact opening words of the service?
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. Words to the hymns were projected, but I didn’t hear anyone singing. All well and good, actually – we aren’t supposed to sing during the pandemic.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
I couldn’t tell if the digital piano was being played live, or if it was pre-recorded. The pianist was not visible.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A hymn sandwich for Christmas Eve. After some words of welcome from the pastor, the opening hymn was (of course) ‘O Come All Ye Faithful.’ The pastor then lit all of the candles on the Advent wreath, including the Christ candle, and invited us to light our Advent wreaths at home as a young mother and children (by video projection) read from Isaiah 61, lit her family Advent wreath, and recited a prayer. This was followed by more singing – or, rather, more digital piano playing. A rather fetching children’s portrayal of the Nativity story was then projected. The pastor summarized Luke’s account of the Nativity and the events that preceded it, followed by a reading from Luke and the sermon. More music followed as the pastor lit the candles that people were holding. The service concluded with ‘Silent Night’ and a blessing.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 — The pastor spoke clearly and was easy to follow, but I thought his talk could have been a bit more tightly organized. And he concluded with a reference to the Vietnam War, which I really didn’t think added much to his theme although I do understand why he included it.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The pastor’s text was the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). We might wonder how a pregnant unwed teenager could react with such maturity to the angel’s account of what would happen to her, and to what she learned during her visit to Elizabeth. One would expect her to be upset – but on the contrary, she is overflowing with praise. Mary was given insight into God’s plan, and she understood that God’s will was already as good as done. The notion of God raising up the lowly, and sending the rich away empty, is challenging for Christians who are content with their lot in life. Perhaps the notion is more meaningful to Christians who are persecuted in many parts of the world. We must look back to Mary’s time, just as Mary looked back to the time of Abraham and God’s promises to him and to his offspring. The wonder of God’s love at Christmas is that God ‘shows up’ in a surprising way. Mary was ready for God. We need God – for ourselves, for the Church, and for the world. We can trust in God’s promises. Not all of life is full of pleasant surprises, but God will never abandon us. God’s love for us doesn’t depend on our behavior – it depends only on his grace, his coming for us – which he has already done. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
It was refreshing to hear the Magnificat preached on, rather than Luke’s account of the Nativity, on Christmas Eve. I think that preachers sometimes strain a bit too hard to discover new meaning in Luke’s account of the birth of Christ.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Hymns on the digital piano, with a very digital sounding stop drawn, without singing, were actually rather sad to hear, and rather monotonous. And I would have preferred the keyboardist to have drawn an organ stop and – if indeed the music was pre-recorded, for a choir also to have been pre-recorded to sing along.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing. The YouTube feed ended abruptly, and I set to writing my report.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none. I had just returned from Christmas Eve dinner at my sister’s house and was quite full. (My sister serves excellent coffee, though.)
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 — The Christian Reformed Church subscribes to certain beliefs that are contrary to what I believe God has intended for people of my persuasion. And call me an old crabapple, but children’s pageants and mothers reading from scripture with small children in tow don’t particularly turn me on. But to each his own. This is clearly a family oriented congregation, which is fine for families but not particularly for old spinsters like Miss Amanda.
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 Mary was ready for God – are we?