They meet in a small chapel of Desert Valley Adventist Church, a modern A-frame structure. Nearly 100 blue cushioned chairs with silver frames and legs were set on barely tan carpet surrounded by beige brick. The light for the chapel came primarily from the huge double windows extending from the double door entrance all the way up to the ceiling. In addition there were six dangling lights on ten foot golden chains and additional spotlights hidden in the rafters. The front of the chapel had two pulpits, a piano on one side, and the piano bench on the opposite side. Besides the obligatory screen and projector for the song lyrics, there was a small video-camera on a tripod in the center aisle. The only decor below head height were four posters, each with one word (Glory, Hope, Praise, Honor). My eyes were drawn up above the brick toward the peaked paneled ceiling, where there was a stained glass window of a white robed figure in a crown surrounded by blue, with hands raised.
This small congregation is made up in large part of former members of the Worldwide Church of God, a radio ministry begun in the 1930s by the controversial preacher Herbert W. Armstrong. Armstrong, who claimed to be God's appointed representative on earth, believed Trinitarianism to be a "counterfeit doctrine", that the United States and Great Britain represented the lost tribes of Israel and that the Jewish holy days were to be observed as "worship days", that Christmas and Easter were pagan inventions, etc. beliefs that gave rise to much scandal, conflict and rebellion within the church. After Armstrong's death in 1986, church leaders strove to move the whole denomination closer to mainstream evangelical Christian beliefs. Armstrong's writings were eventually withdrawn from print, and in 2004 he was declared a false prophet and a heretic. Today, Grace of God Fellowship sponsors a number of organizations such as Christian Odyssey, a magazine devoted to practical Christian living; Reconciliation Ministries, devoted to responding to racial and ethnic tension; and State of the Heart, an ecumenical ministry with the goal of enhancing unity in the Body of Christ. Others are described on their website.
Tucson, about 110 miles southeast of Phoenix, is a smaller, more laid-back city than its big sister to the north. Although summers in central Arizona are scorchingly hot, Tucson almost always enjoys a cooler, wetter climate than Phoenix due to its higher elevation. The church is located on a corner of a residential neighborhood.
Pastor Ted Millhuff and worship leader Lila Millhuff.
What was the name of the service?Service.
How full was the building?
About 30. The building was less than half full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Most of the people introduced themselves before the service started, warmly shaking hands and inviting me to stay for food after.
Was your pew comfortable?
The blue cushioned chairs were quite comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was an atmosphere of friendly greeting and chatting. People seemed happy to be there and to see each other. I could feel the love it was contagious!
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"OK, were ready to go."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There were no hymn books used, as the words to the songs were projected on a screen. The congregants all had their own Bibles, presumably various versions. But we were all given a transcript of the sermon that would be preached read on!
What musical instruments were played?
There were no live instruments played. The congregation sang along to tracks played over the sound system.
Did anything distract you?
During one of the worship songs, the words on the screen didn't match what was being sung by the worship leader. Many were watching the slide guy rather than singing along. Others seemed to know the song by heart and probably didn't even notice.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was upbeat and exuberant. All the songs emphasized the joy of the gospel and praise to Jesus Christ for all he has done for us. There was no "going through the motions" here all were fully engaged with heart and mind. It was powerful!
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – Pastor Millhuff read some of his sermon from the transcript, expounded on some of the text, referred to scripture, and had some low key repartee with parishioners, who were (so it seemed) expected to read, listen and respond throughout the message, and then go home and read scripture to verify. He totally made it work! He made several allusions to the "Herbert Armstrong years", comparing that time to the Egyptian captivity of the Jews.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
His text was 2 Timothy 3:16-17 ("All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching"). Scripture is not just for the purpose of mechanistically getting information about God, but rather to make God known so that we might communicate with him as his children and so share in holy and loving communion. Most of all, it is to point us to its grand theme, the Lord Jesus Christ, from beginning to end. We must not obsess over the wrong questions. The right question, the most crucial question, is WHO, and that is the key to all the other lesser questions.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The part of the service that was most like being in heaven was hearing from several of the members themselves what it was like to go through the transition from a legalistic, high-control group to the true gospel of grace and freedom in Christ. Although these Christians did endure serious trials, it was so clear that they were willing to suffer the "loss of all things" in order to gain Christ. I felt humbled and inspired to hear their testimonies and stories.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I felt a little awkward when I first came in because it was so obvious I was a visitor. But this feeling quickly dissipated, as I enjoyed the friendliness and love of Christ that was shown.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
By the end of the service I had already met most of the congregants. I had already been invited to the lunch that would be served in a nearby room, accompanied by cake to celebrate Pastor Millhuff's birthday. I took them up on it, and had a wonderful time of food and fellowship.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It was a full lunch, pot-luck style. There was delicious home-made fried chicken, fruit, garlic bread, and even a plate of sushi!
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – I think I would fit right in, and grow in my Christian walk from the sermons and these dear saints, even though most are older than I am.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, absolutely! I think Christians who come out of high-control groups have a special kind of joy, and remind us all how amazing grace really is.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The overall emphasis on the gospel in the sermon and conversations.