Shepherd of the Hills, Fountain Hills, Arizona, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Shepherd of the Hills
Location: Fountain Hills, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Wednesday, 25 December 2019, 10:00am

The building

They met originally in a private home, then in an office complex, then in the local community center. Their present building dates from 1978, and was at first the only church in town that had its own building. It is a rather odd wedge-shaped modern structure. Inside one finds a bright, triangular room with large clear windows. The altar is on a slightly raised platform, with choir seating to the right, along with a grand piano and the organ console, and tables set out for the bell ringers. (No choir or bell ringers at this service, though.) The room was decorated with a Christmas tree, wreaths, and lots of poinsettias.

The church

They appear to be a very social congregation – they hold a ‘Sunday Social’ once each month at various parishioners’ houses. There was also a Christmas Open House at the home of another couple earlier in the month. Their numerous ministries are well documented on their website, and include both local and worldwide outreaches. Their women’s ministry involves correspondence with women prison inmates, a prayer group, and a quilting group, among other activities. (I did not see mention on their website of a men’s ministry.) Their youth ministry incorporates training for prospective babysitters that includes pediatric first aid and household safety. Other ministries consist of health and wellness and a grief support group. There are two services each Sunday: an early traditional service and a later service entitled ‘Celebration Service.’ There is adult Sunday school between the two. In addition to today’s Christmas service, there were three services on Christmas Eve: a carol service, traditional service, and one featuring the praise band.

The neighborhood

Fountain Hills is a very upscale and very expensive bedroom community to the northeast of Phoenix. The land was originally home to the Yavapai Native American tribe, and petroglyphs from that era can still be seen. A family from Iowa by the name of Pemberton established a cattle ranch in the area in 1917. The ranch was sold in 1968 to entrepreneur Robert Paxton McCulloch, who built a town on the site, calling it Fountain Hills after a geyser fountain he installed in the center of town. (McCulloch is the one who, that same year, arranged for the relocation of London Bridge to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, as a tourist attraction.) The fountain, at the time the world’s tallest (it is now fourth tallest), was intended to be a lure for prospective land buyers, and still attracts sightseers. Legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright had his winter home and studio here; the building is open for tours but charges a hefty fee. McDowell Mountain Regional Park is nearby, featuring hiking trails of all levels of difficulty. The church is located on El Lago Boulevard just outside of downtown, in an area marked by very large, very expensive houses on large, well landscaped lots.

The cast

The pastor, vested in alb with cincture, a white stole with green stripes, and a pectoral cross. He was assisted by an elderly lady who gave the readings.

What was the name of the service?

Christmas Worship.

How full was the building?

I couldn’t count the seats due to their triangular placement facing the altar, but the place was about two-thirds full. A middle aged to elderly crowd, both men and women. I saw no children and very few young adults.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Lady and gentleman greeters said, ‘Good morning and merry Christmas.’

Was your pew comfortable?

Typical church pew – it was OK.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Loud visiting in the back of the church, but people sat quietly once they were settled in. The pianist played a medley of Christmas carols, including the jauntiest ‘Noel Nouvelet’ I have ever heard – nicely done. He was applauded, as was the solo sung at the offertory – UGH and DOUBLE UGH!

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Good morning. Merry Christmas.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version; Lutheran Book of Worship; and a handout. The handout, however, was for the previous evening’s services. Actually everything we needed was projected.

What musical instruments were played?

Grand piano, in perfect tune, for the pre-service music and to accompany a solo at the offertory. Electronic organ to accompany the congregational singing.

Did anything distract you?

The pastor’s alb was about a foot too short for him. My choral group had sung at a Lutheran church in Fountain Hills a few years ago, but I couldn’t remember if this was the one. Upon seeing the inside, I realized that it was.

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

An abbreviated liturgy (no confession/absolution, no Gloria, no Creed) typical of Western church celebrations. Candles on the altar, but no incense or bells. Surprisingly, the pastor chanted the Sursum Corda and Preface at communion time, but I think the congregation was as surprised as I was – I was apparently the only one other than the pastor who knew the tunes. The music was all traditional carols, but the singing was very weak throughout.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

9 minutes.

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

8 — The pastor spoke clearly and conversationally, but I thought he could have ended his sermon (in fact, I thought he was going to) before segueing into the anecdote I’ll mention below.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He took as his text the gospel reading, John 1:1-14 (‘In the beginning was the Word …’). Those lines sum up Jesus’ entire ministry and put it in global perspective. Churches are built in the center of communities to symbolize God being among us. At Christmas ‘God moved into our neighborhood,’ so to speak. That’s good news! (And here he segued into the following anecdote:) A grandmother once taught her grandson how to play the piano, but the boy hated every minute of it! All he ever learned was to practice scales: ascending, descending, in every key. After the grandmother died, the boy found a note she had written: ‘Scales are God’s message to the world.’ He had no idea what that meant, but as he was doodling with scales at the keyboard, he suddenly realized that the descending D major scale, with the proper rhythm, is the opening of ‘Joy to the World.’ Jesus brings us joy, hope, life, forgiveness – and he’ll never leave us!

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The pastor’s sermon message was heavenly.

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

Where shall I begin? The organist pitched all of the carols about a third too high for comfortable singing. During the offertory solo, the sound system began suddenly to howl the most diabolical howl, spoiling the poor woman’s solo. At the eucharistic prayer, the pastor launched immediately into the words of institution without realizing that the Sursum Corda and Preface were being projected on screen – he caught himself, but then he couldn’t find the right page in the missal. To his credit, though, he chanted both of them beautifully after finding the page. But again, the sound system suddenly boomed forth right in the middle of it – if truth be told, he was doing just fine without amplification. The Sanctus was to a tune I had never heard before – and apparently neither had the congregation.

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

The pastor dismissed us with the blessing from Numbers 6:24-26 (‘May the Lord bless you and keep you …’), after which people cleared out pretty fast. An after-service pot luck Christmas luncheon had been advertised, and the pastor mentioned that it was taking place, but I noticed that most people were heading straight for their cars. I wondered what was in store for us at the pot luck. I was about to find out!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Their website had advised that ham, turkey, potatoes and gravy would be provided at the pot luck, and to bring a covered side dish. The website had also instructed anyone interested in attending the pot luck to RSVP to the lady in charge of the event, although no indication was given as to how this might be done (no phone number or e-mail address). Apparently I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t RSVPd. The parish hall was set with tables and chairs that could accommodate about 100 people, but I counted only 15. I sat at one of the far tables (‘When you are invited, take the lowest place,’ and all that) but no one joined me. Cutlery and plates had been set out on a serving table, along with some miscellaneous salads and pies, but no ham, turkey, potatoes or gravy were in evidence, nor were any hot plates or steam tables there to accommodate same. I waited about 15 minutes and then left, without any food having appeared, anyone having sat at my table, or anyone having said anything to me. People saw that I was leaving but made no effort to stop me.

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

0 – I did not expect that I was going to be ignored. Not in a hundred lifetimes could I amass enough money to be able to afford to live in Fountain Hills, but if by some miracle it should happen, I would seek out a friendlier, more welcoming church.

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

The service did; the pot luck most assuredly did not.

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

It had been raining cats and dogs all morning, and was still raining as I got into the Amandamobile and drove off. But as I crossed the city line into Phoenix, suddenly the rain stopped and the sun began to break through. Sums up my morning’s experience precisely, I thought. I’ll remember that, and how disappointing the pot luck turned out to be.

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