A very attractive modern rectangular building set amid trees and fountains. In the midsection is a pitched roof that covers the sanctuary. Inside is a rectangular room with choir seating and an upright piano to the right, and band instruments and a grand piano to the left. Over the communion table is a circular stained glass window depicting the Holy Spirit hovering over what appears to be the Grand Canyon.
They describe themselves on their website as ‘a vibrant church with lots of things going on all of the time,’ and that certainly does seem to be the case. They have several fellowship groups, including Lunch Brunch, meeting once each month in a local restaurant; Prime Time, a social group for all ages; men’s breakfast; moms’ group; and a youth fellowship. There are also grief support and diabetes support groups. Their care ministry consists of (quoting from their website) ‘members of the congregation who volunteer their time to visit, call and assist those in need.’ There is a children’s Sunday school as well as adult Bible classes. They also contribute to several local charities. There are three services each Sunday: two traditional and one contemporary.
They are located on Beardsley Road east of 75th Avenue in the Arrowhead Ranch neighborhood of Glendale, a sprawling northwesterly suburb of Phoenix. Not that many years ago, Beardsley Road lay well outside the northern fringes of the Phoenix metropolitan area. Today, the metroplex extends for several more miles before dissolving into the desert. The area around the church is primarily middle-class residential, with large single-family houses and upscale apartment complexes and condominium communities.
The minister of pastoral care and visitation led the service. He looked very dapper in a dark grey suit with light grey shirt and blue and grey checkered tie.
What was the name of the service?Traditional Worship Service.
How full was the building?
About three-quarters full – mostly elderly, mostly women, all smartly dressed. There were a few young families. To be fair, I saw a younger crowd exiting the earlier contemporary service.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A gentleman in the parking lot said hello and asked me where I was from. We chatted a bit. No one else paid me any attention.
Was your pew comfortable?
Conference room style chair. It was OK.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Lots of noisy visiting out in the lobby. It was quieter inside the sanctuary, but some people carried their loud conversations in with them. I changed my seat to put some distance between myself and the entrance door. The pianist played some tinkly bits right before start time.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Good morning, everyone.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A service sheet and The United Methodist Hymnal, but everything we needed was projected.
What musical instruments were played?
Grand piano, in perfect tune and very masterfully played.
Did anything distract you?
Not really. I had heard the pastor preach before in two different churches, so I guess it was a bit of a distraction – but a pleasant one – to see him yet again.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A rather informal service, a loosely adapted version of the traditional liturgy of the word that we are used to in Western churches. As advertised, the music was all old favorite hymns. There were two musical interludes: one by an alto and soprano duo and another by a mezzo soprano (or she may have been a contralto). The alto had a warm, deep voice but I thought she dipped a little too far down toward the bottom of her range. The soprano sang with a harsh, strident voice to which range didn’t really apply. Needless to say, they didn’t blend, and neither knew anything about breathing technique. The mezzo soprano fared better. After the confession, the assurance of pardon was pronounced by a layman, not the pastor (was it valid, therefore?). During the obligatory meet and greet, people seemed enthusiastic about meeting and greeting those they knew but paid scant attention to me. The pastor presented Bibles to the third grade Sunday school students (about which more in a moment). There was no communion service today.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 — The pastor spoke with a relaxed, conversational tone that seemed very down-to-earth. To be fair, he had a difficult text (and admitted as such), but I thought he tried his best to make the best of it. He prefaced his talk by singing a solo, ‘It Is No Secret What God Can Do,’ by Stuart Hamblen, one of radio’s ‘Singing Cowboys’ of the 1940s. And he sang in quite a respectable baritone voice.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
His text was the gospel reading, Luke 12:49-56 (Jesus predicts family strife), and he entitled his sermon ‘Trouble in the Family.’ ‘Who finds this Bible passage comforting?’ the pastor asked. No one! If there was any time in history when the family needs to be strengthened, it is the present time! It seems there is no communication any more – all talk, no listening. Some consider the family to be the most important institution of all. But God comes first and foremost, then family. Put God at the head of your family, and God will help your family to grow relationships. That old saying, ‘The family that prays together, stays together’ is true. God offers the gift of grace, love and forgiveness. Who else should a family want to turn to?
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
One of the hymns was that old chestnut ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand.’ I had forgotten how moving it can be. I’m not ashamed to say that singing it brought tears to my eyes. The pianist accompanied the hymns with a bravura style that nevertheless supported the singing very well. And his accompanying of the solo pieces was by far the best thing about them.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The solos mentioned above were applauded – UGH! Not the pastor’s, though – he had the good sense to segue into a prayer even before the last note had died out, which quelled any impulse by the congregation to applaud. But the aforementioned presentation of Bibles to the third grade Sunday school class was puzzling. The class consisted only of two little boys, one of whom seemed bored out of his gourd and the other somewhat less so. The pastor presented them with Bibles wrapped in plain brown paper. They removed the paper to reveal a second wrapping, this time in paper imprinted with superheroes – Batman, Spider Man. ‘Who is the greatest superhero in the Bible?’ the pastor asked. Surprisingly, neither little boy knew. Next, they removed the superhero paper to reveal newspaper. ‘The Bible is good news!’ the pastor proclaimed. Then they removed the newspaper to reveal plain white paper. ‘Purity,’ the pastor reminded them. The white paper was then removed, revealing gold paper. ‘The Bible is more precious than gold!’ the pastor said. Finally they removed the gold paper to reveal their Bibles. No wonder they were bored.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I told the pianist that I thought his playing was the best thing about the service, and that I saluted him. He shook my hand, thanked me, and wished me a pleasant week. Otherwise, people took up their visiting again but seemed oblivious to the visitor in their midst.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I had noticed people coming out of the earlier service with donuts and cookies in hand. I asked if they would also be available after this service, and was told, ‘I don’t know – maybe, maybe not.’ So I helped myself to a sugar coated chocolate filled donut (delicious) and some coffee (bottom of the pot, but tolerable and served in a ceramic mug) before going in. And sure enough, as my service let out, I noticed that there was only one donut left, and no coffee.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 — I had high hopes for this church judging from their website. They do seem to be a strong congregation, but strong only for themselves, not for visitors. I do appreciate a traditional service with old favorite hymns, but I’d want a music director who wasn’t afraid to tell would-be soloists that they really need to bone up on tone, breathing, and blending. I would gladly listen to that pianist every Sunday, though.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. Putting God first, as the pastor suggested, just might solve some of today’s major problems. (During the intercessions, the pastor prayed that God would give Congress the strength, when they return from their recess, to put aside their differences and do what they were elected to do. From your lips to God’s ear, I thought.)
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand.’