First Presbyterian, Oceanside, CA (Exterior)

First Presbyterian, Oceanside, California, USA

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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: First Presbyterian
Location: Oceanside, California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 9 October 2016, 10:30am

The building

The present building, their second, dates from around 1980 and is a modern A-frame structure with a classroom wing and a tall bell tower. One enters a lobby off which open a lounge area and the sanctuary. The sanctuary was renovated in 2015 and is hexagonal in shape, with a vaulted ceiling and pews in the round that angle in toward the center platform. Clear glass windows, into which have been incorporated stained glass panels, give the room a sunny, bright ambience.

The church

They sponsor a number of ministries for children, adults and seniors. These include a Stephen ministry, an intercessory prayer guild, a chapter of Presbyterian Women, and Bible study. The Windjammers group, for (quoting from their website) "singles and couples whose children have left the nest," puts on a variety of social activities designed to provide opportunities for Christian fellowship: theater trips and other outings, birthday parties, game night, dinners, etc. There are two services each Sunday: contemporary and traditional.

The neighborhood

First Presbyterian is located on El Camino Real, the highway that connected all 21 of the California missions in the days when California was part of Spain's New World possessions. The church is about a half-mile walk from the Sprinter interurban rail line that connects downtown Oceanside with the city of Escondido, 22 miles to the east. Opened in 2008, the Sprinter service uses right-of-way formerly belonging to the Santa Fe Railroad (now the Burlington Northern Santa Fe), which had operated passenger trains along the line until 1946. Across from the church is the Eternal Hills Cemetery - aptly named, as the walk from the Sprinter station (if one arrives that way) is all uphill!

The cast

The Revd Mike Wallman, interim pastor, wearing an indigo academic gown minus hood, gave the opening greeting and made announcements, led the prayer of confession, pronounced the assurance of pardon, read the intercessions, and led us in the Lord's Prayer. The Revd Elizabeth Wilson Manahan, associate pastor, wearing a black Geneva gown and green stole, received new members and blessed the scarves (see below), preached the sermon, and gave the closing benediction. Steve Vandlen, organist, presided at the organ and piano. Robert Larson, choir director, led a group of 10 singers. Greg Phelps gave the call to worship and prayer of dedication, and led us in the Nicene Creed.

What was the name of the service?

Traditional Service.

How full was the building?

The sanctuary can hold about 400 people. I estimated there were about 150 present, but it looked pretty full even though we had plenty of elbow room in the pews. It was mostly an elderly crowd, predominantly women. I spotted one young couple and one family with a young boy. There were no other children present.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I opted to arrive by car rather than walk up the hill from the Sprinter station. I entered via the "sacred walk," which, quoting from one of their brochures, "guides the worshiper clearly and directly and as pleasantly as possible from the parking lot to the sanctuary." The sacred walk is actually a cloistered walkway off which open classrooms and rest rooms and which, via a series of twists and turns, does eventually lead to the lobby outside the sanctuary. I managed to avoid being greeted as I slipped in unobtrusively, although there were greeters on hand (see below). The pastor, in his opening remarks, told us to "go find someone you don't know and shake their hand." One gentleman who shook my hand told me that I've got a real good handshake.

Was your pew comfortable?


How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Lots of talking and visiting. Greeters were stationed in the aisles to welcome people and give them an order of service. I managed to avoid eye contact and so avoided being greeted, although I'm sure I would have been had I been less secretive.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning, Church. Great to see you. Are there any first-time visitors? No?" (Again, I managed to keep a low profile.)

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Presbyterian Hymnal and The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, were in the pews, but everything that we needed was projected onto two screens. There was also an order of service.

What musical instruments were played?

Electronic organ, large and nicely voiced, and grand piano in good tune. The choir of eight ladies and two gentlemen wore burgundy robes.

Did anything distract you?

The Revd Elizabeth Wilson Manahan, associate pastor, spoke with that peculiar California accent known as Valley Girl. It was especially distracting during the reception of new members.

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

A relaxed yet orderly hymn sandwich. The hymns were all traditional if you consider Dan Schutte's "Here I am, Lord" to have slipped into tradition. Personally I'd drag it in kicking and screaming, but I suppose it has arrived. No question about the other hymns: "O God our help in ages past" and "How firm a foundation." They were all enthusiastically sung and well supported by the organ, although Steve Vandlen, the organist, is a bit of a show-off, I'm afraid - but I'll admit his improvisational skills are excellent. There were two choir anthems accompanied by piano. At today's service, three new members were received into the congregation and were anointed on their foreheads with oil by the associate pastor. A collection of home-made scarves, shawls and hats that will be donated to the homeless were blessed. There was no communion today, although they do have Lord's Supper on the first Sunday of each month (today was the second Sunday). In the Nicene Creed we said that Jesus was "born of the virgin Mary and became truly human" instead of "was made man."

Exactly how long was the sermon?

29 minutes.

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

10 – The associate pastor looked down at her notes every so often but looked at the congregation most of the time. She made good use of hand gestures and even managed to lose her Valley Girl accent for the sermon. To be honest, she held me in thrall the whole time.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Her text was 1 Corinthians 4:1-5 (do not judge others). A successful leader cannot be successful alone - the community must help. A leader must be honest and trustworthy, surrounded by an honest and trustworthy community. Faith does not happen in isolation - it happens in community. Christ holds us together. But often we are bogged down by minutiae - things that really don't matter and yet can lead to the breakup of a community. That is not what Christ is calling us to do. We are called to unity. Unity does not mean that we must agree on everything all the time - we can agree to disagree about that which is not fundamental. An open dialog is essential. Things won't always go exactly as planned, but with Christ at the center the future is bright. And if things don't go the way we want them to, that doesn't mean that God isn't working through them.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I thought the choir got off to a shaky start with their first anthem, but they recovered beautifully in the second anthem, sung with meaning, emotion and conviction. And they blended well considering their small numbers.

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

Toward the end of the service, the pastor noted that we were going a little overtime. Well, yes, but maybe that was because announcements were (1) projected on screen, (2) included in the program, and (3) read from the pulpit. Is the congregation really that absent-minded? Also, maybe because a little too much was included in this service. Reception of new members, OK, but maybe the blessing of the scarves could have waited one more week? The weather hasn't turned yet in southern California.

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

The pastor had also said that there would be no pastries with the after-service coffee today because no one had volunteered to go and pick them up. Apparently a local bakery is happy to donate day-old goodies, but on condition that someone come pick them up - which no one did. That, and the fact that they were running a little overtime, and the fact that I had another engagement, caused me to slip out during the final benediction.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Refreshments were served in what they call Calvin's Coffeehouse, but because I left early I can't report on how Calvinistic it was - although without pastries I can imagine.

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

8 – I think this church has a lot going for it. I sensed that there have been some transitional pains of late, and I would like to see more young people in the congregation. But I think they're serious about getting their act together and I could see myself being a part of it if I lived in Oceanside (which, unfortunately, I don't yet, although I'm working on it).

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


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

The new members being anointed with oil in a Presbyterian church!

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