Mystery Worshipper: Sabbath Man
Church: Plymouth Congregational
Location: Des Moines, Iowa, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 13 May 2007, 9:00am
From the outside, a traditional red brick church building. On the inside, very stately and "churchy:" dark wooden beams, stained glass windows, a beautiful and ornate wood-paneled chancel. Large and sprawling, many floors and wings. I parked in a multi-level parking garage, like at an airport, in a space labeled For first-time visitors. There were plenty of signs pointing the way to the church entrance.
Plymouth is the voice of progressive Christianity in Des Moines, known for their motto: We agree to differ. We resolve to love. We unite to serve. A United Nations flag standing up front along with American and Christian flags, a gift certificate to a local brew-pub as a door-prize, new exhibits in their art gallery, are all emblematic of Plymouth's style and ethos.
Des Moines, located in the central part of Iowa, is the state capital. It sits on the Des Moines River, which (legend has it) was named after a community of French Trappist monks (moines in French) established nearby. More scholarly research, however, bases the name on a Frenchified version of the Algonquin word moingona, meaning "loon." The insurance and banking industries figure prominently in the city's economy. Des Moines is also where the first primary (the Iowa Primary) in the US Presidential election cycle is held. Architecturally, Des Moines is an interesting mix of 20th century Beaux Arts buildings and modern skyscrapers. Plymouth is located on a major boulevard in an urban area, not far from downtown, surrounded by apartments and old mansions.
The Revd Patricia Adams Oberbillig, minister of pastoral care, opened the service. The Revd Angie Witmer, minister to young adults and youth, read the scripture. The Revd Faith Ferré, minister of discipleship, led the prayers. The Revd Matt Mardis-LeCroy, minister of spiritual growth, preached. Sharon Parker-Lenihan was guest conductor of the Matins Choir, a group of about 30 high school age youth who processed in during the first hymn and sang an offertory anthem. Ben Wedeking, a young man from the youth choir, played the violin. Carl Gravander Jr was organist.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Worship.
How full was the building?
The sanctuary was about three-quarters full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
There were greeters at several doorways. Three different greeters nodded or smiled and one gave me a worship bulletin. I signed and passed a friendship folder with others in my pew.
Was your pew comfortable?
My pew was comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A little odd and confusing. When I first arrived, the sanctuary was quite empty, but soon one of the pastors came out and spoke a few words of welcome. While she was doing this, there was loud, even raucous, talking still heard from the foyer. Then after her little welcome, the vast majority of the people came into the sanctuary in dribs and drabs from a variety of entrances. I didn't know if worship had begun or if she had basically told people to come in and sit down because we would start soon. It felt as if those "in the know" didn't come in until called.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymns of Truth and Light, originally the project of a UCC church in Houston, Texas, but which I understand is now widely used in many congregations. I especially liked the inclusion of informative little statements about the composer, author and circumstances surrounding each hymn.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, plus violin during the call to prayer and to accompany the youth choir.
Did anything distract you?
I found the opening, or what seemed to be several openings or a lack of flow in the early part of the worship, the most distracting. For me it seemed disjointed, start-and-stop. Also, about one-quarter of the way into worship we paused again, this time for announcements and the dismissal of the children. In addition, I was a little put off by the overly florid language used in some of the liturgy. Not the "thees" and "thous" of King James English, but rather overly-intense sincerity, too many adjectives. Perhaps they were trying to demonstrate that formal worship can be heartfelt.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Formal but not stiff. I sensed the people felt comfortable, at-ease. Laughter, smiles and nodding heads in agreement were all common.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Pastor Mardis-LeCroy came out from the pulpit and delivered the sermon from the center of the chancel. He was personable, energetic and humorous.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Preaching on Acts 16:11-15 (the conversion of Lydia, who invited Paul and the disciples into her house), and it being Mothers Day, he showed how Lydia acted as any mother would. Lydia demonstrates that God always transcends our confining labels for people. You throw like a girl. The gay lifestyle. The heartless rich. Little old lady. All people are more than their labels and often it is by transcending our labels that God works.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sermon in general. When the preacher said, God is always transcending human labels it was a powerful moment.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The lack of flow, rhythm or any apparent theological rationale for the earlier parts of the service. I was also a little shocked and peeved when the offertory prayer was said facing the back wall. Didn't Catholics stop celebrating with their back to the congregation after Vatican II? Shouldn't children of both the Reformation and the Enlightenment know that God does not dwell in the back wall?
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I stayed lost. An announcement had been made that coffee would be served and that visitors would receive a free mug. I headed toward the door that seemed as though it would lead to the coffee, but no one spoke to me or showed me where to go. A few people nodded on the way out, but that was the extent of it. Where were all those helpful signs that guided me into the church from the parking garage? I couldn't find a restroom either!
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I never found it.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – If they could get their early service act together and be a little more considerate of visitors, then it could be a friendly, vibrant, exciting place to worship.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. Reports of the demise of progressive Christianity are apparently exaggerated. It is alive and well at Plymouth. I offer several critiques and questions, but there was a vibrancy here. An impressive, well-maintained building, a pretty full sanctuary, 30 young people singing, a good sermon, a bulletin full of opportunities and announcements, a general sense that people were glad to be there.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
God is always transcending human labels.