Mystery Worshipper: Travelling Vision Guides
Church: St Albert the Great
Location: Austin, Texas, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 23 July 2006, 10:00am
It is a stonework building that evokes the aura of a cathedral but retains a modern look and feel. As you drive toward the building, the thing that catches your eye is a big metal cross atop a steel pyramid-like framework – it reminded me of an oil derrick. The interior is light and open, with plenty of windows. All sight lines converge on the altar, which is surrounded by seating on three sides.
It is predominantly a young congregation but encompasses all ages. They seem to have a robust twenty-something ministry that lends itself to the younger congregation overall. A sign outside the church mentioned a crisis pregnancy group, and they sponsor several organizations for youth and young adults. But their website lists several other ministries geared to the older set, such as a bereavement committee, a Great Club (a social organization for all over 50), St Al's Gals (open to all women of the parish), etc. They also hold a boar's head medieval festival during Epiphany (costumes welcome).
St Albert is the patron saint of scientists, and Austin is home to a thriving technology industry. But nothing springs to mind as being unusual or especially interesting about the surrounding neighborhood.
The Revd Isidore Ndagizimana, pastor; the Revd Joseph Geleney, associate pastor; Storm Knien, director of music; Andrew Stone, cantor.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Mass.
How full was the building?
When we arrived 10 minutes before service time, it was only about a third full. By the time mass started, it was mostly full. I wouldn't say standing room only, but there weren't any obvious gaps or holes in the seating.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
We had several people greet us during the passing of the peace, but no one recognized us as visitors.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, as far as pews go. It did not hinder the experience in any way.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Highly meditative, although there were a few babies who were crying and several kids who didn't want to sit still.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning! Please rise and join us in singing the opening hymn: 'There's a wideness in God's mercy.'"
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The only book in the pew was Glory and Praise.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ and the human voice.
Did anything distract you?
A baby several pews in front of us started crying a few times, but her mother took her from the sanctuary each time. A cell phone went off in the pew in front of us during one of the prayers. Several times I caught myself looking at the stained glass at the back of the sanctuary and studying how the pastor used the stage space to address a congregation that was on three sides of him.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Mostly a stiff upper lip kind of service, but there was a lot of call and response involved. Much of the service had the feeling of liturgy that is always present in the Catholic Church, but they also used refrains such as "God is good, all the time! All the time, God is good!" several times during the service.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The pastor spoke clearly and concisely. He was very much aware of how to use the space he was in. He worked the room on the diagonals so he was always facing at least two-thirds of the congregation. Well done.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He connected the notion of holiday or vacation with the rhythms of a Christian life. Some Americans need a vacation from their vacations because they haven't learned how truly to rest and revitalize themselves.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I am very enamored of a sung eucharist. It adds a certain depth to a liturgy that can become stale if it is always done in exactly the same way. And the building itself is quite conducive to worship. It has very clean lines and draws one's focus to the center of the room no matter where one may have decided to sit.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Pet peeve: They asked visitors to stand up. This always makes me uncomfortable.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No one said a thing. Almost everyone headed straight for their cars with little noticeable intermingling after the service.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It wasn't announced and no one pointed us to it. I have no idea what it was like if indeed there was any.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 – It seemed like the kind of active, involved group I'm looking for despite their unfriendliness, but other issues make this an unlikely fit. My personal theology does not mesh well with some of the things Roman Catholics believe.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I wouldn't say glad. It did make me stop and think about some of the cultural assumptions we make about what a vacation is and what it should be. I think this sort of challenge is one of the things a church should do. If we aren't challenging ourselves, I don't see much of a point.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The building is what I'm most likely to remember. It was great to be in such an open, airy room that had a slight reverb to it.