They meet in the auditorium of Centennial High School, a not particularly interesting campus of plain modern buildings. One enters a large anteroom set up with twenty-five round tables with seven chairs apiece. Coffee was being served from several large urns, and a large bin of glazed donut holes had also been set out. The auditorium opens off this room and is a typical auditorium – nothing special to report. On the stage were two banks of seven – count ‘em, seven – loudspeakers apiece, plus music stands, microphones, a drum set, and oh yes, a lectern with a cross emblazoned on the front.
Redemption Church is a federation of nine independent churches throughout Arizona, united by a central management structure and a common set of beliefs and liturgical practices. The Peoria campus has two worship services each Sunday and appears to be very family oriented, with emphasis on child rearing and the adoption of orphans and other children in need of foster care. Newcomers are invited to join a three-week ‘Start Here’ class, for which reservations are required. I was able to glean no information from their website as to what other ministries they offer, and no announcements were made, nor was literature available, about whatever they might be.
Centennial High School is located on 79th Avenue just north of Thunderbird Road in this western suburb of Phoenix. Their immediate neighbors are a Mormon temple (by far the most architecturally appealing structure in the area), several other independent charismatic churches, a warehouse, and a public swimming pool. As one continues north on 79th Avenue, one encounters housing stock that is decidedly plebeian.
The preacher was not identified either by name or by title, and I cannot tell from the photos on their website which of the several pastors on staff he was. Two other gentlemen on stage were identified as elders of the congregation. Since neither of them could have been much over 30 years old, I marveled at the title ‘elder.’ All were casually dressed in jeans, sneakers, and untucked shirts.
What was the name of the service?I don’t think it had any particular name.
How full was the building?
I counted about 500 seats and they were about three-quarters full. A young crowd, all casually dressed. I don’t think anyone there was over 30 – except, of course, Miss Amanda, who hasn’t seen 30 for a very, very long time! (She saw 74 two days ago, if you must know.)
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A few people said ‘Hello’ or ’Good morning’ but no one engaged me.
Was your pew comfortable?
Typical auditorium seat – comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People were sitting around in the anteroom enjoying their coffee and donut holes, as was I. A large sign outside the auditorium doors read ‘No Food or Drink. Hats Off. Cell Phones Silent.’ That, however, did not stop people from bringing food and drink into the auditorium, or some gentlemen from leaving their baseball caps on. Inside, people visited as they found seats. Rock music was playing over the PA system – it got louder as start time approached.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Stand up as God calls us to worship.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. Song lyrics, prayers, and readings from scripture were projected.
What musical instruments were played?
Electronic keyboard, three electric guitars, drums.
Did anything distract you?
I suppose the fact that it was such a young crowd was somewhat distracting. So many church congregations consist almost entirely of old people – it was refreshing in a way to see none.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
According to their website, their worship follows a liturgical pattern: call to worship, confession and assurance of grace, prayer, greeting, scripture reading, teaching, the Lord’s Supper and benediction. That’s pretty much what we got. The opening song was ‘All creatures of our God and King’ to the customary tune of Lasst uns erfreuen, but a rock version thereof. Other songs were less familiar, but generally of a cut above the banal, repetitive, third-grade reading level texts you usually hear in modern day praise music. One lyric especially caught my attention: ‘You have made the blind to see; we have blinded them again.’ We recited Psalm 96 and a confession of sin. Words of institution were spoken over the communion elements. We received communion from a large bowl of bread cubes, which we intincted into one of two ceramic chalices labeled ‘Wine’ and ‘Juice.’
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 — I’m going to flip all the cards because whichever pastor it was who preached did so clearly and animatedly. I thought he started out a bit weakly, showing some photos of his family and himself at a somewhat younger age, but he quickly tied them in and then went on to deliver an easy to follow and thoroughly engaging exegesis of his text.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
His text was Luke 7:36-50 (Jesus, dining in Simon’s home, forgives the sinful woman). When the pastor was younger, he had long hair and looked like Jesus in the eyes of those who think Jesus was a white, long-haired hippie. This earned him the role of Jesus in many a church pageant, where young children were made to come up to him to beg forgiveness for their bad behavior. This made him uncomfortable, as he, too, was a sinner. What does Jesus really think of the many portraits of him that we cherish so dearly, he wondered. Simon, a Pharisee, would never have permitted the sinful woman who came into his home to wash or anoint his feet; he would probably have pushed her aside if she tried. But Jesus didn’t stop her – in fact, he turned to her! He used her, a sinner and a well known one at that, to underscore Simon’s readiness to judge. We can identify with each of the characters in the story: the woman, as we are all sinners, but as believers we turn to Jesus; Simon, as we are all too quick to judge others; and even Jesus, since as believers we see even the lowliest other as a creature of God deserving of our love.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I thought the sermon was heavenly, as was a talk, followed by prayer, given by the pastor and the two elders about abortion – how a demonic force is at work in the concept of abortion, and how Jesus is holding each aborted baby in his arms. One of the elders actually cried as he prayed: "We don't know what you're waiting for, or why, but come back to us, Jesus!" Jesus' return, he said, will put an end to this abominable practice.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I’m going to fault the sound system, as it was boomy and bassy and made the songs and some of the prayers hard to understand. The pastor, however, had a better mic at his disposal – either that, or he knew how to speak into it better, as his sermon was crystal clear.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
They describe their music as a ‘mix of hymns and modern worship songs … done with excellence, but humble in presentation and posture.’ They were, for the most part, but I thought the post-communion music started to deteriorate rapidly into the loud rock, banal lyrics, type, and so I beat a hasty exit during it and before the final benediction.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Pre-service coffee was hot, strong and tasty, and the glazed donut holes were fresh and delicious. As I left, people were beginning to gather in the anteroom for the next service. I used the facilities (spotlessly clean) and then helped myself to one more post-communion donut hole on the way out.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
0 – Don’t be fooled by my rating. It’s not my style of worship, and so I probably will not be making a return visit, but it was refreshing to worship via a liturgical structure, such as it was, in a charismatic megachurch. And it was refreshing to see a congregation of all young folk, although I do wonder how many of them will stick around as they age. As for now, this is not an old person’s church, although I don’t begrudge it to the young people who clearly enjoy worshipping there.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
On the whole, yes.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The excellent sermon.