First United Methodist, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA

First United Methodist, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Nomad
Church: First United Methodist
Location: Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 March 2007, 11:00am

The building

The church occupies an entire city block and is the second church for that congregation on that site. The orginal building is now the fellowship hall and retains its classic exterior. The new building, dating from the 1950s, is very modern on the outside and yet the sanctuary is completly traditional in style and function. Stained glass windows depict the Apostles.

The church

First United Methodist is the oldest Protestant church in the city and as such has a long and storied past to draw upon. There is a pride of legacy that is visible everywhere one looks. And yet, despite that legacy, there is a leaning forward which comes through in the manner in which the children's area is utilized. The recent opening of a fountain and courtyard for use by area office workers speaks to the congregation's intent on being of use for the wider community.

The neighborhood

Albuquerque was founded in 1706 as a Spanish colonial outpost. The original settlement was laid out in the classic Spanish pattern of a central plaza off which could be found the village church, government buildings and private dwellings. Known as Old Town, this area has been restored as a commercial and cultural attraction. The famous Route 66, the principal east-west motor route through the United States until the advent of the interstate highway system, passes through downtown Albuquerque, although nowadays it is regarded more as a nostalgic tourist attraction than a highway. As the city grew, the downtown area fell into decline and decay, and many historic buildings were razed to make way for new plazas, high-rises, and parking lots. First United Methodist is a downtown church that is completely surrounded by office buildings, restaurants, bars, and so on.

The cast

The Rev. David Okerberg, senior pastor, led the service. John Clark, director of music, presided at the keyboard; and Darby Jones, lay reader, assisted with the lessons.

What was the name of the service?

Morning worship

How full was the building?

Perhaps two-thirds full. The congregation were spread throughout the sanctuary although there were a number of pews completely empty.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A woman with a name tag came up behind us in the parking lot and noticed that we were new. She escorted us into the lobby area, took us on a tour of the building, made sure to introduce us to the pastor and others, and with great pride showed us the historical part of the church.

Was your pew comfortable?

Pretty much so. The pews looked new and had padded seats but no pads on the back. They was comfortable enough early in the service, but as the service wore on we became more and more aware of the pew backs.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The atmosphere seemed to be relaxed with a sense of anticipation. Everyone seemed happy to be there, and the conversation out in the lobby was boisterous. But as people entered the sanctuary they quieted down quickly, nodding to friends while finding seats and making themselves ready for worship.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning. Thank you for remembering to set your clocks ahead last night." (Daylight Saving Time had just begun.)

What books did the congregation use during the service?

There was a Bible in the pews (New Revised Standard Version) with the United Methodist Church logo on the front cover. The Bible in front of me had stiff pages, which made me think that it had never been opened in a service. There was also the United Methodist Church Hymnal (1989 edition) which was used for all hymns.

What musical instruments were played?

Piano for all of the musical selections, plus a brass choir (not sure how many muscians were in it) playing in a side balcony.

Did anything distract you?

How to say this delicately? The brass choir, while appreciated, was simply too loud for the hymns chosen that morning. The musicians blasted out the first note of each hymn, and it took a moment to recover from the jolt and figure out how far the congregation had gotten into each hymn! This got so bad that during the second hymn we had to stop even trying to sing. The conflict between the choir, the piano, the congregation, and the brass became too much to bear.

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

This service was as traditional a United Methodist Church service as I've seen in some time. The processional, Gloria Patri, choral anthem, and offertory congregational response were all used to good effect. The pastor wore a black Geneva gown and preached from the pulpit. The choir and brass choir were in robes as well.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

18 minutes, which included a prayer at the beginning and the end of the sermon.

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

6 – The preacher seemed to have one pace and one tone which made the reading of the sermon a bit stilted. It took awhile to discern his direction and purpose. The thing that came through loud and clear was how much the pastor was trying to connect to his people.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Repentance is a gift from God made possible through the gift of time, the gift of Christ, and the gift of grace. There is a real need to relate our acceptance of Christ's love to the act of repentance and then make the world aware through our lives that God's grace is available to others too.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The calling of attention to the stained glass windows of the apostles lining the sanctuary raised the congregation's vision from the here and now to the then and the yet-to-be.

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

As much as it pains me (as a former trombone player) to say this, the brass choir was wrong in this setting. The arrangements for the hymns selected simply were not suited to the worship setting. It was painful to listen to beautiful music being battered by the brass hordes assembled in the balcony above.

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

The warm greeting at the beginning was completely absent aftewards. When I stood in the middle of the lobby hoping to be noticed, it was apparent that the folks who had moments before held hands during the recessional hymn now had somewhere else to be.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

While wandering around looking lost, I noticed a table with a coffee urn, styrofoam cups and a box with donuts (for 50 cents each). No one manned the table and there were no signs suggesting that one should enjoy the offerings on display.

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

5 – While there is much to suggest that this congregation takes its role in the life of the wider community seriously, that there are ample opportunities for personal involvement, and those who attend are clearly motivated to do so, my impression was that there is something missing. I couldn't discern what there was for me to connect to. Programs are one thing, long-standing relationships are another, but the seeker and the newcomer might have a long road to journey down before becoming part of the community.

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

Not particularly. There seemed to be a disconnect between the parts of the service, and a lack of passion throughout. Not that there needs to be a carnival in the service, but some more life would be appreciated.

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

The warm welcome at the beginning of the service. It made us feel that someone cared that we were there.

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