Mystery Worshipper: Clandestine Christian
Church: River Vineyard Christian Fellowship
Location: Lower Manhattan, New York City, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 19 October 2008, 11:45am
The River holds services at 41 Broad Street, the former Lee Higginson Bank Building, in a venue known as the Broad Street Ballroom, which also serves as the auditorium and performance hall for the Claremont Preparatory School. The building was designed in 1929 by Cross and Cross Architects, once known as "New York's architects of choice" and designers of hundreds of Manhattan churches, office buildings, hotels, stores (most notably Tiffany & Co.), and elegant private homes. In the art deco style, the ballroom (formerly the bank's main banking hall) is grand in every sense of the word, with cathedral-like high ceilings, gilded columns, and a large mural entitled A Pageantry of the History of Commerce by Sea by the noted muralist Griffith Baily Coale, whose works adorn buildings throughout the eastern United States. For church, there were rows of chairs set up facing the front stage. There was also a food table set up on the rear left side, as well as a table with CDs , books and literature in the back. Boxes for offerings had also been placed in the back.
This is a "church for people who don't do church." It mainly attracts young people – I would say that almost everyone was under 40; I didn't see any old people. Dress was casual, mainly jeans. The River holds classes for those seeking answers about faith, and has a ministry to people with HIV/AIDS. There are two services each Sunday morning.
This is the financial district of Manhattan, with short, narrow, twisted streets veering off the (comparatively) aptly named Broad Street. The New York Stock Exchange is just a few doors away.
John Furste, worship pastor, led the worship, and Charles Park, senior pastor, preached the sermon. Music was provided by Jeremy Riddle, a Christian concert and recording artist from California.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Service
How full was the building?
Almost full, about nine-tenths full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. As I came in the building, a woman handed me a bulletin and greeted me very warmly. I received many welcoming smiles upon entering the auditorium. There was a greeting period in the beginning of the service, similar to the peace of a traditional service. People introduced themselves to me as they shook hands.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. Chairs with comfortable cushioning covered in vinyl.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was very lively, as in a social gathering. People were greeting each other and chatting. As the food table was already set up, many were helping themselves to food. It felt like a party.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
What books did the congregation use during the service?
No books at all were used. The song lyrics and scripture verses were projected on a huge screen on the stage. The Bible versions were the New International Version and the New American Standard Bible.
What musical instruments were played?
A trio consisting of acoustic guitar/vocals, electric guitar and djembe (African drum).
Did anything distract you?
I did feel distracted when the music became loud during worship, and by people taking plates of food to eat during the service. I was also a bit confused about communion. They hold a more or less formal communion service the first Sunday of each month, but on other Sundays communion is available in the back of the church during the service, as a do-it-yourself type of thing. This was completely new to me. I didn't partake.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Non-traditional and loosely structured. There was no formal liturgy. The worship – at least on this Sunday – was grounded in Christian folk-rock music. The music trio led the worship by playing folk-rock songs with lyrics on the screen for sing-along. Many people did clap along. I'm not sure what it's called when people raise their right hand and wave it around while praying or singing, but I feel it qualifies as a style, since many people did it during worship. I don't think I saw any left hands up. There was a brief prayer before the sermon.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
37 minutes long.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Pastor Charles Park was engaging as a preacher; he was funny and his wit was completely accessible. He spoke very clearly and the sound system was excellent. He walked back and forth with a microphone, looking directly at the congregation as he spoke.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was the first of a three-part series: "The Centered Life: Living Outside the Box," and expanded on John 7:37-8:11 (the Pharisees doubt that Jesus is the Messiah and marvel that he has not been arrested; meanwhile, Jesus forgives the adulteress at whom no one is blameless enough to cast stones). The Pharisees couldn't see Jesus as the Messiah because of their rigid "bounded set" thinking. But rigid systems crash when the unpredictable happens. Current financial problems are examples. Jesus was the model of a centered life, and could handle the challenges the Pharisees gave him. We need to learn to live outside the box and to keep our connection to God fresh and alive.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sermon was spiritually and intellectually challenging.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I didn't like watching people eat during the service. During the second song of the worship period, the music became rather loud and people were moved to stand. So some were sitting and some standing. I felt a bit out of place at times.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The food table was practically in front of me, so I took food and then stood looking lost. Someone came right up and asked if it was my first time there, and I immediately became engaged in conversation with a couple of people.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Assorted cheese slices, pita slices, carrots, cucumbers, celery sticks, tomato slices, various dips and spreads, little bagels, assorted muffins, various kinds of juice and tea, coffee – all in styrofoam cups and on paper plates.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – I would like Pastor Park in a more traditional church, but I'm sure he wouldn't like it and his congregation would be very unhappy without him. I do like doing church, so River couldn't be my regular. I would miss the organ, choir and sacred music, hymns and the quiet atmosphere of a church. At coffee hour, a woman asked me if I had liked the service. I said I liked some of it, such as the sermon and some of the music, but I was used to something more traditional. She said, "Oh, you mean like singing hymns?" I found that funny, because she and others there would probably have no ability to make it through a traditional service – no eating, no hand-waving – what would they do? After all, they "don't do church!" But I liked the 11.45 starting time – a good church for night people. I'm pretty sure I will be back sometime to visit.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. It actually made me very happy that people who have a difficult time with church can have a place to worship and hear the word of God. I found it moving.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The message in the sermon, the interesting auditorium, and some friendly people.