Augustana Lutheran, Washington, DC

Augustana Lutheran, Washington, DC


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Mystery Worshipper: Divinity Boy
Church: Augustana Lutheran
Location: Washington, DC
Date of visit: Sunday, 13 September 2009, 10:30am

The building

Swedish immigrants established this church in 1918 and called it St Erik's. Augustana is your standard Gothic Revival brick church. The main entrance is up a fairly inaccessible number of steps if you're not young and fit. There is an accessible entrance around the side, but as a visitor I wouldn't have noticed it on first glance.

The church

In the 1930s the congregation were still mainly Swedish-speaking, and by the 1950s nearly all members were descendants of Swedish immigrants. Today, most of those who come to Augustana are either English or Spanish speaking, although there is still a small active Swedish membership. Augustana is extremely racially diverse for a Lutheran congregation. It's also multi-generational and has a goodly number of gay and lesbian couples. All of this is in keeping with their being a part of the Reconciling in Christ movement. They celebrate holy eucharist each Sunday morning and also hold an adult forum and Sunday school. There are services in Swedish (once each month) and Spanish in the afternoon and evening.

The neighborhood

Augustana is located between the busy, trendy Dupont Circle district and funky, eclectic Adams Morgan. The demographics of these neighborhoods are reflected in the congregation.

The cast

The Revd John Kidd, pastor, was the preacher and celebrant. J. Thomas Mitts, A.Mus.D., presided at the organ and directed the choir.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist.

How full was the building?

About three-quarters full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. There was an assigned greeter at the front door who handed me a bulletin and welcomed me. I arrived a few minutes early, and while I was leafing through the hymnal, two different members came up to me to say, "You're new here. Welcome." I'm sure they were sincere, but they seemed a bit overly friendly to me – read on!

Was your pew comfortable?

Pews are, by their very nature, uncomfortable. I kept hitting my knees on the back of the seat in front of me.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

People chatted and walked around casually. A bunch of people were scurrying around in the chancel preparing for the service, setting up communion, etc. When I took my seat, I began to sweat. It was not very warm outside, but the A/C hadn't kicked in and it was very warm inside. I began to feel ill and actually considered leaving, but then the air conditioner began to work and I felt better.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Welcome to Augustana Lutheran Church. This is the feast of the Holy Cross."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A red hymnal and service book called Evangelical Lutheran Worship, along with some printed material in the bulletin.

What musical instruments were played?

A pipe organ, a two-manual instrument by Orgues Létourneau of Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec, Canada.

Did anything distract you?

I thought the people who welcomed me at the beginning might actually have been flirting with me! Who wants to be ogled at church? Also, there were too many people milling around in the chancel during the service: the choir, readers, acolytes, crucifers, etc.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

The best way to describe the style is bipolar high church Lutheran. There was a lot of incense. This is unusual for a Lutheran church. I felt we should have been warned that incense would be used extravagantly. The thurifer seemed to take great pride in swinging his smoking purse. And a Sanctus bell was also jingled – I actually rolled my eyes and laughed out loud when someone rang that awful bell during the words of institution. Aren't these Protestants? All of this was, in my view, cold and off-putting. But the pastor's welcome and sermon were warm and casual.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

5 – The preacher strolled around in front of the congregation and seemed only to refer occasionally to some notes in his hand. The sermon was rambling and didn't really make a point or have a structure.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The text was John 3:13-17, with emphasis on verse 16 ("God so loved the world..."). He referred to the congressman from South Carolina who called President Obama a liar. He also referred to Holy Cross Sunday but never really gave an explanation of what it was all about. Most Protestants don't celebrate this fairly Catholic festival.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The congregation, not just the choir, could sing. The organist was also very good at leading congregational singing, knowing when and how to support the congregation and when to show off his technique.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

All that smoke! And those terrible bells during communion. Very distracting. Hell is smoke and bells.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

A man who was sitting behind me said, "You must go to church a lot since you didn't even look at the book but could sing the canticle from memory." I'm sure he meant it as a compliment, but had he been watching me and gauging my every move?

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I wandered through a maze of passageways reminiscent of the Roman catacombs but finally found where refreshments were being served. I stood in line for the lemonade and cookies, but no one talked to me. In addition to lemonade and cookies, there was also coffee and some fruit. Oddly, a person in the corner was selling beaded jewelry, but there was no explanation of whether this was a fundraiser or just someone trying to make a buck. How strange!

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

4 – The combination of high and low church was awkward. Rather than achieve a happy middle, the mix just seemed confusing.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

No really. But then only a few services have ever made me feel that way.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

All that incense!

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