Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwyth
Church: Mission Bell United Methodist
Location: Glendale, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 June 2017, 10:00am
They are easily spotted from the road by their namesake bell, which is mounted in a freestanding tower at the foot of their driveway. A gentleman named Thomas O'Brien had brought the bell with him when he moved to California from South Dakota in 1903, and when his church disbanded the bell was made available to whichever church wanted it. How it ended up in Arizona is not clear, but for many years it lay in storage in the parsonage garage. It was hung in its present tower in 1988. Catching sight of the tower from the road, one turns down the driveway to discover a rather flat, nondescript brick building and a similar classroom structure. The church building dates from around 1980. Both the porch and sanctuary seem easily accessible by the disabled, but someone would have to hold the door open for the wheelchair worshipper. The sanctuary is an oblong rectangle with cocoa brown walls and brownish-grey carpeting. A simple communion table sat in front of a raised platform, on which were a drum set (thankfully unused), digital keyboard on a stand, pulpit, and choir seating. A second digital keyboard in the shape of a baby grand piano stood to the left of the choir seating.
They have a number of lay ministries that involve themselves in various pastoral care activities. There is a Mature Group for the young at heart. They also have women's Bible study (but I saw no mention of a like group for men), a prayer chain, and a family fellowship group. There was an announcement about a dinner group being organized for the fall. Sunday services previously consisted of an early contemporary service and a later traditional service, with Sunday school in between, but they have condensed the schedule into a single service, with Sunday school to be announced. I was told the change is permanent, not just for the summer. (I had showed up the previous week for the advertised traditional service, only to find the combined service already in progress. I said I'd return the next week at the "correct" time and remarked that they should change the announcement on their website.) Whether the single service was contemporary or traditional or a blend of both, I was about to find out. Judging from certain visuals on their web home page, I had a feeling I already knew = but read on!
Glendale is one of the northwest suburbs of Phoenix. The church is located on Bell Road, a very busy major east-west artery, made all the more busy because it is the only east-west road that reaches all the way into Surprise, the northwestern-most suburb. Bell Road once marked the northernmost boundary of the Phoenix metropolitan area, but nowadays the urban sprawl extends northward for several more miles. The nearest north-south streets are 43rd Avenue and 51st Avenue, also very busy thoroughfares.
The Revd Rula Colvin, D.Min., pastor, led the service and preached. Susan Krouskup gave the call to worship. Cliff Wright, music director, was in charge of the music. This was Dr Colvin's last day as pastor of this church. She looked very ministerial in black blouse, black slacks, and a greenish-blue sweater.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Service.
How full was the building?
I counted about 100 chairs and there were only one or two vacant ones. It was almost exclusively an elderly crowd - only a handful of younger adults and only one child that I noticed. I didn't spot any wheelchairs, but they could easily have been accommodated. One lady parked a walker to the side, and several gentlemen were using canes.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A lady at the door said "Good morning" as she handed me the service leaflet. Except as noted below, no one else said anything to me. There was no meet and greet or exchange of peace.
Was your pew comfortable?
Padded chair comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Lots of greeting, visiting, talking. The pastor was working the room, and stopped to introduce herself to me. She thanked me for coming. I told her about my experience last week with the service time being wrong on the website. A lady sitting in front of me then turned around and said the website had been fixed; it appears she is serving as the de facto webmistress as no one else has volunteered to take over the job. We chatted amiably for awhile. But no one else acknowledged me or said anything to me.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning. Good to see you here this morning."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The United Methodist Hymnal and The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, were in racks under the chairs, but we didn't need them, as everything appeared on monitors hanging on either side of the front platform. The displays were clear and the font was large enough to be seen easily. My hearing isn't what it used to be, and I sometimes have trouble understanding what's being said if the sound system is not up to snuff, but I had no trouble today.
What musical instruments were played?
Digital keyboard. I wondered why Cliff Wright played one number on the rack keyboard (standing up, no less) and everything else on the baby grand keyboard, as he chose similar sounding stops on each. There was a choir of five vocalists - four ladies and one gentleman.
Did anything distract you?
Two of the choir members used hand-held microphones; one tapped her foot to the music. The gentleman in the choir sat with his legs crossed. The director swigged water from a bottle. Someone's cell phone went off during the pastor's opening remarks - its ring tone sounded like an alley cat in heat! It completely threw the pastor off what she was saying, but she recovered nicely, asking, "Is that for you?" [Laughter.]
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A relaxed, informal hymn sandwich. No communion today. The music was a mixture of traditional and contemporary, and I'll have more to say about it below.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – Pastor Colvin's sermon was easily the high point of the service. She spoke in a relaxed style that was easy to listen to and easy to follow. She even managed to interject some humor - her text was Luke 15:11-32 (the parable of the prodigal son) and she introduced it by saying, "The reading today is from Luke, chapter 15, verses 11 through - oh my God, all the way to 32? Well, its a good story." [Again, laughter.] Toward the end, she turned her remarks to what a dying congregation needs to do to revive itself.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
What does it take to get someone to change? The answer: "Whatever it takes." That may sound flippant, but what it takes is different for everyone. It may be something good: love, spiritual awakening, music - or it may be something bad: a near death experience, loss of job, arrest. But whatever it is, it always involves being struck by God's grace. We aren't the ones who change people - God is. We'll be there to offer support. Like the prodigal son, a person in need of change will come to his senses. He will experience a moment of revelation. A dying church congregation must come to its senses, open itself up to God's Spirit, and find a new way to do church. No pastor, no district superintendent, no bishop can revive a dying congregation - only the congregation can! Change is not easy - a lot can go wrong. But God is patient with us as we keep trying.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sermon. And one of the traditional hymns, "Be thou my vision", was sung a cappella and sounded lovely.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
But the contemporary songs were of the endlessly repeated, overly simplistic, genre (e.g. "I am a friend of God, I am a friend of God, I am a friend of God, he calls me friend"). And so on. At the offertory, the doxology was sung to a jazz setting complete with doo-wop vocals. One lady in the congregation got happy, waving her arms and jumping up and down, as the choir was singing it, but most everyone else just stood there. I would have run screaming from the place had I not been Mystery Worshipping.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
In the end, I couldn't resist the urge to run screaming a silent scream from the place during the final blessing and dismissal, and so I did.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
A farewell reception with cake for Pastor Colvin had been announced, but I was long gone before it started.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
0 – If this kind of music rings this elderly crowd's bell, so to speak, then more power to them. But it doesn't ring mine. Among the things I look for in a church, two stand out: good preaching and a strong music program. I found good preaching here, but I prefer traditional music supported by the organ. And where are the families with children? Mind you, I'm no young whippersnapper, but I like to see a good mix of young adults (singles as well as families) in the pews. A congregation comprised almost exclusively of old folks is to me a dying congregation.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
The sermon did, but otherwise, no.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?