Oakhaven Church, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Oakhaven Church
Location: Oshkosh, Wisconsin, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 26 April 2020, 10:30am

The building

The congregation was formed in 1976 and met at various locations. In 1979 they acquired an old dairy barn that was slated to be demolished, and retained local architect James Larson, who specializes in restoring old buildings, to renovate it for their use. In 1981 the City of Oshkosh Landmarks Commission granted the church the Acanthus Award for its innovative repurposing of an historic structure.

The church

Their ministries, all suspended at the moment, are listed on their website. Of special note is their annual IF:Gathering, a two-day retreat at which participants (quoting from their website) ‘focus completely, entirely on the person of Jesus.’ Today’s service was streamed live on YouTube, and videos of past services are also available for watching.

The neighborhood

Oshkosh, in east-central Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Winnebago, is known to most Americans for OshKosh B'gosh, the children’s clothing manufacturer specializing in overalls and other work duds designed to let little Junior look just like his hard-working daddy. OshKosh B’Gosh operated until the turn of the 21st century but, alas, was eventually done in by competition from Mexico, Honduras and elsewhere; the brand name has been sold to a conglomerate based in Atlanta, Georgia. Incorporated as a city in 1853, Oshkosh was long famous for its streets that were paved with pine planks, a symbol of the booming lumber business in which many local entrepreneurs made their fortunes. Both planks and fortunes are long gone, but Oshkosh’s historic district is replete with carefully restored houses, churches, schools, public buildings, and even an observatory – all relics of a bygone era. The Oshkosh Corporation, manufacturer of fire engines, military vehicles, tow trucks (the ubiquitous Jerr-Dan rigs are made here) and the like, is the city’s principal economic mainstay today.

The cast

The service was led by two gentlemen who did not identify themselves. They were joined later on by a young couple who did not identify themselves either.

What was the name of the service?

The live stream broadcast was entitled ‘Show Me.’

How full was the building?

From the original six people who were waiting pre-service (see below), the on-screen counter dropped to five, then began to climb again until it reached twenty-nine at its highest point.

Did anyone welcome you personally?


Was your pew comfortable?

I really do like my desk chair – if I didn’t, I would replace it. Sometimes while watching a video I move across the room to my overstuffed recliner, but not if I have to interact via the keyboard.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I accessed their YouTube channel about 15 minutes early and noted that there were already six people waiting. There was no pre-service ‘show’ on-screen, however. Two minutes before advertised start time, a multicolored countdown clock flashed on screen, accompanied by a rather annoying ‘elevator music’ sound track. This was followed by titles from the Passion and Resurrection narratives, again accompanied by annoying music.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Welcome to the worship stream of the Oakhaven Church.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

None. Music was shown on screen – in shape note notation, I am happy to say. The projected songs bore the inscription ‘© 2003 The Paperless Hymnal.’ Scriptural readings were taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version.

What musical instruments were played?

Quoting from their website: ‘The music consists of congregational a cappella singing … from old classic hymns to more contemporary songs.’ Most of the songs were traditional and were sung by a pre-recorded choir in four-part harmony and sounded quite good – with some exceptions (read on!).

Did anything distract you?

The contrast between the elevator-type pabulum music during the countdown clock, and the traditional shape-note hymns sung by the choir, was a distraction. Other aspects of the music were a distraction too – I’ll get to those in a moment.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Again quoting from their website: ‘Collective worship … is seen to be a continuation of the believer’s daily walk with God … simple and uncluttered … plain spoken and designed to connect.’ The service opened with a sing-along; some of the music was familiar, some not. This was followed by some announcements, and a reading from scripture: Isaiah 43 (we are the Lord’s), and an ex tempore prayer. Then more music, pre-recorded by a quartet of voices who, unless my ears and eyes deceived me, did not follow the shape-note notation that was being displayed. Then some petitions, and the quartet again who didn’t follow the shape-notes. Next, a young couple rambled on incoherently about their impressions of virtual worship and then helped themselves to some communion wafers and glasses of what was probably grape juice. We were then asked to ‘think about giving’ and to remember that everything we have is a gift from God. Next, we had another reading from scripture: John 14:1-7 (‘I am the way …’), read by the young woman from the couple who had taken communion a moment ago. This was followed by a short video of the story of the Doubting Thomas, more announcements, and the sermon. The service concluded with a blessing and final song, a soft rock version of ‘Crown Him with Many Crowns’ – at which point I closed the YouTube channel; I had heard enough.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

35 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

4 — The preacher spoke clearly and was well miked, but I thought he spent way too much time talking about the difference between how we reckon days of the week as opposed to how the ancients did it. Also, he rambled all over the place. I would have preferred a more tightly constructed message.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The scriptural account of the Resurrection is perhaps the most important passage of all. The fact that Jesus arose on the first day of the week, and appeared to the disciples on the first day of the week not once, but twice, is significant. Worship on the Sabbath is tied to the story of creation, but these events did not occur on the Sabbath. The Resurrection represents a new creation of God, not the old creation. And so as Christians we worship on Sunday, the first day of the new week, not on the Sabbath, the last day of the old week. No more ‘business as usual.’ The Doubting Thomas gets a bad rap, but the truth is that none of the disciples believed that Jesus had risen until they actually saw him. Like Thomas, all of humanity has to decide whether or not to believe in Jesus. When we believe that Jesus is God, everything falls into place. If the Resurrection had been a hoax, the apostles would not have suffered themselves to be martyred (all except John were put to death for their faith). Even today there are places on earth where Christians are brutally murdered for their faith. Jesus was not simply a great teacher – he was either a madman or he is our Lord and our God. Our lives need to reflect what we believe. We need not only to believe, but to look like Jesus, to be his vessels. The world so badly needs that now. Sometimes it may feel like God has forsaken us – Jesus certainly understood that as he hung on the cross – but the truth is that God will be with us always. ‘Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.’

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The shape-note choral singing was heavenly. And the video of the Doubting Thomas was touching in a syrupy but heartfelt sort of way. However …

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

… the quartet who didn’t follow the music that was displayed was not at all heavenly. Their renditions sounded very much like close-harmony barbershop singing. Some people like barbershop, but I find it highly annoying after a few seconds. And I wish we had been told that communion would be taken – we could have been ready at home. Not that any words of institution were spoken, though – they weren’t.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

I didn’t hang around looking lost (or looking found, for that matter).

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I began thinking about lunch.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

0 – This style of worship is a little too plain, and tries to cover a little too much, for my taste. Unlike other virtual worship services I have witnessed during the present crisis, I found this one tiresome and not at all inspiring.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

No. I would have stopped watching the video feed about a quarter of the way through the sermon had I not been Mystery Worshipping.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

That communion took us all by surprise.

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