Mystery Worshipper: Ebenezer
Church: Mid-Peninsula Vineyard
Location: San Carlos, California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 8 September 2013, 10:00am
They meet in an unassuming, modern building, which they have named "Godshack". Since its not very tall, it is instead made noticeable from the street by large, tasteful signs on both entrances. The interior is plain and free of distractions, and is comprisied of white cinder block, wood paneling and blinds, and light mauve carpeting. The windows and angles form a space conducive to focusing on the abstract. Noise-reducing panels on the ceiling, padded chairs, and carpeting affect the acoustics, for a contemplative and expectant atmosphere. A rough-hewn wooden cross with rope bindings where hands and feet would go is affixed to the wall above the worship stage.
According to their website, they started out as a University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) student Bible study and became a church in the early 1980s. They became affiliated with the Vineyard Movement in 1990 and later moved to their present location in San Carlos. They are currently looking for a pastor. Judging from my visit, the small congregation seemed to be composed mostly of middle-aged families and singles, and was relatively racially diverse. They conduct Sunday morning Bible classes each week before the service, and there are other weekly Bible studies as well as home groups. They have a particular focus on the visual arts, facilitating creative worship services, workshops, meetups, and art classes. They also offer counseling services and host a 12-step recovery program. Additionally, they volunteer in a residential fruit tree gleaning program for food shelters a brilliant idea in California!
San Carlos is an affluent suburban town 20 miles south of San Francisco, at the northern tip of Silicon Valley. Mid-Peninsula Vineyard is located in a residential neighborhood three blocks from the main street. It is also just across the street from a public middle school, with which they have an active relationship, including helping maintain the school property.
Worship was led solely by visiting musician Danny Daniels, an internationally known songwriter, worship leader, and educator. The message was given by Chris Wessling, who is part of the teaching team. Lisa Sharek, a member of the board of directors, gave a welcome message and the announcements.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Worship.
How full was the building?
The sanctuary seats about 120. At the start of the service, it was 10 per cent full with a dozen people in attendance. Forty minutes later when the music ended and the message was given, there were about twice as many people there. I cannot fathom how 25 people could support a building of that size and so many ministries.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Two people shook my hand in the anteroom and made introductions before directing me into the sanctuary. I looked around for programs, but didnt see any. Later in the service, I noticed many people had programs. I got up to search for them, and found a stack on a chair at the back of the sanctuary.
Was your pew comfortable?
They use interlocking padded chairs, which I am familiar with and consider to be the gold standard of comfortable seating for the masses. I took to heart the worship leader's instruction to make ourselves comfortable sitting or standing, and sat cross-legged for much of the service.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Sound tests provided a warm and familiar background. A few people talked very naturally. The people sitting nearby spotted me as new, introduced themselves, and made conversation. Because of the acoustics of the room and its relative emptiness, it was simultaneously possible for others to sit quietly and pray.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Visiting worship leader Danny Daniels opened the service with a short rendition of "Amazing Grace". After that, he said, "Have we started? Is this it?" After a smile and pause, he began a prayer: "Father, bless us with your presence here."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Halfway through the message, the teacher directed us to a passage of scripture. He said there were Bibles available if we hadn't brought one, which most people had. There were no Bibles in the pockets on the chair backs, so I looked around and asked the woman behind us if she knew where they were. She handed us a paperback version of The Holy Bible, New International Version owned by the church; I'm not sure where she got it.
What musical instruments were played?
Danny Daniels played a mellow-sounding electric guitar with outstanding skill, and sang. There was no other musical accompaniment.
Did anything distract you?
At one point, the medley of music transitioned into The Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun", with a couple of lyric substitutions. My ears perked up and it took me a minute to place the song. After the chorus, the worship leader stopped and proclaimed, "Everything can be redeemed!" That earned an approving laugh, and he launched into the next song. I agree in principle, but since its not a song I frequently have running through my head, trying to figure out why it sounded familiar, remember the words, and process the substitutions was mildly distracting.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
There were over a dozen contemporary worship songs, some of which I recognized, such as "Draw Me Close" by Michael W. Smith. These were interspersed with a few hymns: "Be Thou My Vision", "Jesus Loves Me, This I Know", and "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross". All were played in a pleasant, laid-back, somewhat bluesy folk style. The congregation sang along barely audibly. Some raised their hands. A few children and adults stood or danced at the back and twirled colored banners, the children sometimes racing around the front of the room as well.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
3 – The first five minutes were entirely disconnected from the rest, and Chris Wessling paused to think for about five seconds between every few sentences. I am not sure whether he had much notice that he was going to be giving the message that morning. If he did have time to prepare, it could have been condensed, and if not, it could have been shortened. To his credit, it did contain coherent concepts, and his humility was evident. About 15 minutes in, he stopped to pray for God's guidance about what to say.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon title was "Going It Alone". Chris Wessling related how he hadn't been to home group in a while, and he noticed less spiritual fruit and more sin in his life as a result. The further we grow in Christ, the more we need him, but sometimes it also means we become more capable on our own, which can tempt us to go it alone. Here he introduced 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 (My power is made perfect in weakness). "The invitation this morning," he said, "is to join me in weakness."
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The guitar playing was truly beautiful.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The slides for the music lyrics projected on the screen were almost always late, sometimes only changing once half the next verse was over. It made it difficult to sing along except where I knew the words by heart.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The worship leader ended the service with: "It's about 11.30; let's hang out." He then invited people to pray for each other in small groups near the front, and continued playing. Amusingly, I didn't realize the service was over. After about five more minutes, Chris Wessling came over to me and said cheerily, "Were officially over!" He explained that a lot of visitors don't pick up on the transition. We talked a while there in the sanctuary. I was met by another person on my way out, and was handed a visitors' gift of a book of poems, A Collection of Love Gifts by Helen Steiner Rice.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Midway through the service, I noticed about half the people had coffee with them, which they must have gotten before the service. I saw it in the anteroom on my way out, but nobody was gathering there. It was not pointed out to me before the service.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – I am familiar and comfortable with the charismatic tradition, but found this service lacking in substance. I would also miss the eucharist and liturgy I am accustomed to.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes and no. I appreciated their evident desire for God and their practice of resting in him. However, I was frustrated by their avoidance of organization. Coordination and effort can also be inspired by God, and could have made for a better service, in my opinion. Given their small numbers and extensive range of ministries, on the other hand, maybe they've purposely made Sunday services a time to let go and relax. It's hard to say from a look at just this service.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The serene, expectant acoustic atmosphere of the sanctuary.