Shepherd of the Desert, Sun City, Arizona, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Shepherd of the Desert
Location: Sun City, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Thursday, 24 December 2015, 10:30pm

The building

A modern structure of white-painted brick with a free-standing tower in front. One enters a spacious lobby that leads into the sanctuary. The sanctuary is long and tall, with pointed arches and whitewashed brick walls. The altar was flanked by Christmas trees and poinsettias. Choir seating is off to the right.

The church

They sponsor a full schedule of classes and programs. Among these are WOW (Word on Wednesdays), a healing service followed by supper; a book discussion group; movies; and a chapter of AA. Special mention goes to Tremble Clefs, a choral group for those afflicted with Parkinson's Disease. There are two worship services each week: Saturday evening and Sunday morning, both including holy communion.

The neighborhood

The church is located on North 111th Avenue just north of Peoria Avenue, on the border between Sun City and Youngtown. Founded in 1954, Youngtown was the first master planned retirement community in the United States. Sun City followed in 1960. Although both cities (as well as others in the area) impose minimum age requirements on residents, the Arizona attorney general has ruled that such restrictions are unenforceable.

The cast

The Revd Dr Daniel Defassio, senior pastor. Sandra Eithun led the call to worship. Kathy Tofanelli, minister of music, played organ and digital keyboard and conducted both the handbell and vocal choirs. Danielle Defassio, who I assume is the pastor's daughter, sang a solo at communion time. There were a crucifer and two servers. Santa Claus made a special appearance (see below).

What was the name of the service?

Evening Worship.

How full was the building?

The sanctuary can hold about 350. I counted about 40- mostly middle aged to elderly.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A lady at the door said, "Good evening and merry Christmas" as she handed me the service booklet.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes. I was surprised to see kneelers there also.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

People sat quietly. One party - a lady and three gentlemen - seemed nonplussed to see me in the mid-sanctuary seat that I had taken. "That's our pew"! the lady muttered to one of her gentlemen companions. Since there were plenty of empty pews in the vicinity, I made believe I didn't hear her. They settled into the pew directly behind me and proceeded to engage in devotional chat appropriate to Christmas: "You know we're missing our bedtime!" and other such prattle. I changed my seat. They didn't immediately move up to reclaim "their" pew – but in a few minutes another party sat down in the spot. Aside from that, electronic chimes played recorded Christmas carols over the PA system, after which the organist played a medley of carols. The handbell choir played a carol immediately before the service started.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"The Lord be with you."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Evangelical Lutheran Worship was in the pews but everything we needed was in the service booklet.

What musical instruments were played?

Electronic organ (large, nicely voiced); digital keyboard (a Clavinova, I think); handbells.

Did anything distract you?

They kept dimming the lights during the readings, and then raising them again, but not all of the chandeliers were lit. I played a little game of trying to guess which chandeliers would remain out each time the lights were raised.

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

It ranks among the spikiest Lutheran services I've ever been to! The processional consisted of crucifer, choir, servers and clergy, all vested in albs - the choir also wearing hoods; the pastor also wearing a white stole, donning a chasuble at the offertory; I'm pretty sure it was cloth of gold. The liturgy could easily have been mistaken for a Roman Catholic mass with some language variations. We sang traditional carols. The Sursum corda, preface and Per ipsum were chanted to the traditional tones. The elements were elevated at the consecration and again at the Per ipsum. Communion was done by one of the servers handing the pastor a wafer, which he intincted and then placed on our tongue. Only incense, bells, dalmatic and tunicle were lacking!

Exactly how long was the sermon?

8 minutes.

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

10 – The sermon (and the children's talk before it - see below) were among the best I've ever heard. The pastor spoke with emotion and conviction. He was especially good with the children.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Our Savior did not come in victory, but as a helpless child, unnoticed. At first blush this makes no sense. But God intended to reshape the world with the message of glory and peace. The two cannot be separated - there is no peace without glory, and no glory without peace. Let heaven and nature sing! Decisions are handed down to us all the time, but God's decision to reshape the world came with his promise - and God always keeps his promises. In a world full of turmoil, God intends for us to live differently.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

During the children's talk, the pastor spoke about how the children in a certain family on Christmas morning excitedly opened the many presents they had received - all just what they wanted - while their parents beamed with satisfaction. But when the last present had been opened, the children looked up and asked, "Is that all there is?" "No," the pastor said, "that isn't all," and he segued into the gospel reading, Luke 2:1-20, Luke's account of the Nativity. At the end of the reading, he said, "So you see, children, that wasn't all there was. There was so much more!" Whereupon Santa Claus came up the aisle and placed the Bambino in the creche. He then took off his cap and bowed his head. It may sound a bit trite in the description, but it was so moving - so heavenly!

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

The organist and choir director, Kathy Tofanelli, played with verve and style. She is clearly a talented musician. But the choir, although they sang on pitch and with perfect harmony, did not blend. Individual voices stood out. They were also a bit overmiked, which didn't help. Mrs Tofanelli needs to work at getting them to listen to their neighbors and match their own tone to what they hear - in short, to blend! Likewise, the communion soloist had a lovely voice but could, I thought, have paid more attention to her phrasing.

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

After the blessing and dismissal, people cleared out pretty fast. I shook the pastor's hand and told him that this was the highest Lutheran service I had ever witnessed. He seemed pleased, and asked me to sign the guest book so that he could speak with me further in the future. (I didn't, though.)

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none on offer.

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

9 – I subtract a point only because of the choir. This is my kind of church: good liturgy, good music, good preaching, friendly people without being overbearing. I'll raise the score to a perfect 10 once the choir learns how to blend.

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


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

The children's talk and Santa Claus reverencing the Bambino.

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