Mystery Worshipper: Sabbath Man
Church: Meredith Drive Reformed
Location: Des Moines, Iowa, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 13 May 2007, 10:50am
There are two campuses, one at Meredith Drive and another in the nearby suburb of Johnston. The Meredith Drive building is a contemporary structure that appears to have had several additions over the years. One enters via a large, airy foyer. The sanctuary is wide but not deep, so no one is far from the front. There is a communion table in the center; above it a large video screen and above that a contemporary stained glass skylight. A clear plexiglas pulpit is slightly to one side. To the other side is a space for band, with piano, organ and a set of drums. There is also a choir area on that side, but there was no choir the day of my visit. Outside the sanctuary can be found lots of hallways, classrooms and a gym. Everything appears well-maintained, full of signs of activity and options.
Meredith Drive Reformed is known as a successful, lively church. Certainly it has been influenced by the somewhat controversial theories of the Church Growth Movement, which advocates a user-friendly church at the expense, perhaps, of some of the stodgier old doctrines of Christianity, and it would clearly align itself with evangelicalism in its American sense. But for the Reformed Church in America in the Midwest, Meredith Drive represents a giant step forward from the old Dutch Reformed Church of yesteryear.
Located less than a mile from one the main commercial strips of Des Moines (car dealers, fast food and shopping malls), the area now has a somewhat aging suburban feel. Probably the church and the surrounding homes were all new in the 1960s or 70s.
The Revd Jill Ver Steeg, one of the pastors, opened the service. The Revd Jane Brown, another of the pastors, assisted with baptisms. The Revd Tony Vis, lead pastor, preached.
What was the name of the service?Worship.
How full was the building?
The sanctuary was probably about 80 per cent full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
An off-duty policeman, whose task it was to help people cross a street between one parking lot and the building, said "Hi." Once I was seated, another person briefly engaged me in some small talk.
Was your pew comfortable?
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There were going to be baptisms on Mothers Day, so there was lots of pre-worship commotion and energy as long-lost relatives arrived, took photos, showed off babies, etc. The projection screen had a cutesy children's drawing projected on it – which did not, in my opinion, bode well.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we welcome you to worship!"
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Hymnal for Worship and Celebration and The Holy Bible, New International Version were both in the pew rack, but all responses and song lyrics were projected onto a screen.
What musical instruments were played?
A praise band of piano, three guitars and drums. The opening songs were led by a smiling praise team of two men and three women (nicely inter-generational, not all young and gorgeous!). Later in the service, the organ was used for two of the hymns. A very young boy played a piano solo during the offering.
Did anything distract you?
As mentioned earlier, I feared that the children's art projected on the screen meant that I was in for a sugary and sentimental time. Thankfully my fears were not realized. And I'm always intrigued by plexiglas church furnishings. See-through pulpits have become almost an icon of a certain sort of church. I don't understand the message. Likewise, the praise band was inside a clear plexiglas enclosure that reminded me of the penalty box in an ice hockey game. Is this to reduce their volume and pulse?
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
"Blended" is the term that I think they would give it. A robed acolyte carried the light of Christ into the sanctuary at the beginning of worship, and then the congregation sang three contemporary praise songs. There were a very few hands raised up during these songs. During one of the praise songs, there was a rather dispirited attempt at hand-clapping. There wasn't much formal liturgy, although at the conclusion of the scripture reading the minister said, "The word of the Lord" and the congregation responded, "Thanks be to God." I was concerned that baptisms on Mothers Day would be terribly sentimental, but in fact a good and true liturgy was used that included the Apostles' Creed (substituting, I noted, "holy Christian church" for "holy catholic church").
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Tony Vis was good. I thought he seemed a bit rushed, trying to squeeze it all in after the baptisms. He used PowerPoint on the screen some, but not a lot.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
"Moms in the Bible." I was skeptical and fearful with a title like that, but honestly it was quite good. It was theological-biblical, not just sexist or domestic how-to advice. Tony Vis looked at Hannah, who realized her child was a gift from God; Mary, who knew her child had a divine destiny; Eunice, who passed on her faith to her child; and most interestingly, Jochebed, the mother of Moses, who could let her child go because she knew God would watch over him. This became a subtle challenge to the overly involved, overly sheltering contemporary parents. Another subtle critique was aimed at American families' obsession with seeking athletic fame for their children.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
At the time, I was not especially impressed or moved, but in hindsight the baptisms were impressive in their own right, over and above all that the sacrament means. They probably best represented the "blended" feel the church is aiming for. The tone was relaxed but not glib, chatty or cutesy. There was still integrity and a liturgical backbone. I was also struck by the fact that two ordained women presided in a very "evangelical" church, without explanation or apology.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Let's talk about praise songs, shall we? I did not mind the praise songs with the praise team so much. What I dislike is the apparent requirement that between each song one of the singers must talk briefly and with undue sincerity about how the message of the song is so meaningful. Was it just my imagination or my bias that there was actually stronger congregational singing during the two hymns, accompanied by the organ, later in the service? I wonder if "praise music" isn't a bit like the emperor's new clothes. Everyone thinks everyone else likes it, but they don't get it themselves. The level of singing and participation would suggest this. Churches think they need praise music, but no one is sure who really likes and wants it. Finally, I also dislike prayers being accompanied by quiet noodling around on the piano. It seems to be rather common nowadays, but strikes me as contrived and manipulative.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I stood alone in the foyer for about two minutes, and then an acquaintance recognized me and came over. We chatted for a brief while and then I left.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Apparently there was no coffee, just conversation and milling around.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – Meredith Drive Reformed is not quite for me, but I did leave impressed by how much there was here that I could affirm. They seem to be succeeding in their attempts at "blended worship." Not all liturgy or tradition has been thrown overboard. It is obviously a very active, thriving and well-thought-out place. Lots of young families. A group of what looked like recent African refugees and a banner in the foyer that read "Save Darfour." Free blood pressure screening before the service. Clean, modern restrooms with sinks down at kids' level. All these things indicate to me a certain approach to church and a healthy, well-rounded congregation.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. Meredith Drive is connecting with a lot of people in a good, solid and not-watered-down way. If this is what all American evangelical suburban churches were like, I'd feel much better.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
"Where parents go, children will follow" from Pastor Tony Vis' sermon.