Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwyth
Church: Iglesia Bautista Central
Location: Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 21 September 2014, 9:45am
A rather plain looking brick structure from the outside. Inside is a square room with beige walls, curtained windows, and harsh overhead fluorescent lighting. A stage is backed by wood paneling and decorated with artificial flowers. An upright piano and electronic organ sit on either side. The stage itself was festooned with rock instruments that thankfully were not used at this service.
They are a bilingual congregation, offering services in Spanish and English. They serve breakfast on Sunday morning for, it appeared, the Spanish congregation plus whatever needy people might wander in (from my vantage point in the parking lot, I noticed a few rather ragtag souls coming and going). There are three services each Sunday: two separate morning services in English and Spanish and one service in the evening.
The church is located on West Hatcher Road just off Central Avenue, in the Phoenix neighborhood known as Sunnyslope. Settled in the early 1900s by tuberculosis patients who had relocated to Arizona for the healthful warm sunny climate, the area got its name from one of its residents who, upon arriving, is said to have exclaimed, "What a pretty, sunny slope!" In 1931 an Ohio businessman named John C. Lincoln took up residence here with his wife, Helen, whom doctors had given two months to live due to her advanced stage of tuberculosis. Mrs Lincoln lived on to the ripe old age of 102, and the hospital where she was treated, known then as Desert Mission, became the beneficiary of the Lincoln fortune. Today the John C. Lincoln Health Center is one of Arizona's major facilities for the treatment of breast cancer, heart disease and deep vein thrombosis. The upper reaches of Central Avenue feature some of the poshest upscale housing in all of Phoenix, but the block of Hatcher Road just off Central where the church is located is populated with rather seedy strip malls.
Nate Parrow, who is associated with Christian Challenge, a college ministry sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention, was guest preacher. The service was led by an elderly gent who was not identified. The elderly gent's wife, whose name is Patsy (see below), played piano. Announcements and prayers were read by a teenage girl who was likewise not identified.
What was the name of the service?English Service.
How full was the building?
I counted room for about 150 and there were about 20 present.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
The elderly gent who would lead the service was handing out service sheets: "You've got one - you've got one - oh, you, so far in the back there (referring to me), you need one." An elderly lady who turned out to be the pianist came up to me and said, "I'm so glad you came. I'm Patsy." I spied a young man from my Spanish class (like me, he had come in the hope of trying out his Spanish, although we were both frustrated in that goal), and we shook hands and chatted a bit.
Was your pew comfortable?
A little on the severe side, but it was OK.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People visited quietly among themselves. Music played over the PA system.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"My Lord knows the way through the wilderness; all I have to do is follow."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Baptist Hymnal and Himnario Bautista were in the pews, although we used only the former. There was also a service leaflet.
What musical instruments were played?
Piano, played quite competently by Patsy. The elderly gent sang in a fine tenor voice.
Did anything distract you?
A chubby young boy in the pew in front of me had apparently never been told that gentlemen remove their hats in church and that people don't walk in front of others who are speaking. During the sermon he got up and left, walking not around the back but instead directly in front of Nate Parrow. A few minutes later he came back in. This kept up throughout the entire service, with him sometimes dragging two little girls who must have been his sisters with him.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
An old-school Baptist hymn sandwich. The songs were fine old revival-meeting style hymns: "Ye Must Be Born Again" and "'Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus." The reading from scripture was projected onto a screen and everyone read it together. The elderly gent really did have a fine tenor voice for an old geezer, and he led the singing with great dramatic flair. During the sermon he sat in the front pew with his arm around Patsy, and they both let out the occasional "That's right!" "Yes!" or "Amen!" when they heard something they particularly agreed with.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – I'd call it more of a pep talk than a sermon. Nate Parrow spoke very rapidly and conversationally, as if he were engaged in a discussion with disbelievers at his college ministry. He said some very inspiring things, but it was a little hard at times to see how it all fit together and exactly where he was going.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
His text was John 12:1-8 (Martha cooks dinner for Jesus, while Mary anoints his feet with oil and Judas complains about the cost). He began with an anecdote about how, when he was a boy, his father used to tell him about various home-improvement projects he had planned, all of which he actually did complete. "Do you understand why I am doing these things?" he would ask young Nate. "Because this is our house - we own it!" was the answer. Renters don't take care of the places they live in - only owners do. Are we renting our faith, or owning it? Mary owned her faith: she gave Jesus all she had. This didn't make sense to Martha or Judas - what we do as Christians often doesn't. When we own our faith we make a serious commitment; we don't simply go through the motions because that's how we've been brought up - that's what renters do! Renters go from church to church, never staying long in any one place, and perhaps abandoning church altogether. Owners give their lives to Christ. "What does Christ want with my life?" we might ask. "I'm unworthy." But it's God who puts value on us, not other humans. God put us all on earth to show us how much he loves us. Make the decision today not only to own your faith, but to make a mortgage payment on it.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I thought that Nate Parrow's pep talk was quite inspiring and reassuring, and it was a pleasure to hear those "old time religion" hymns.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
But I hate it when preachers of one denomination categorically denounce things that other denominations might believe. Nate Parrow peppered his otherwise inspiring talk with statements such as "Baptism doesn't save - don't baptize infants" and "The cross is not a symbol of Christ's mission."
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nate Parrow ended his talk with a prayer, after which things just sort of broke up. Small groups formed, especially around Mr Parrow. I told the elderly gent who had led the service what a fine tenor voice he had and how much I had enjoyed the old hymns. "They're so easy to pray with!" he said. How true.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – I got the impression that most people there had come to hear Nate Parrow speak, and that there really isn't much life otherwise in their English-speaking congregation - also, that there isn't much of a connection between the English and Spanish congregations. I did enjoy stepping back in time to worship in an atmosphere that prevailed in days gone by, but I realize I'm in the minority feeling that way.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Own your faith, don't rent it.