Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwyth
Church: Shepherd of the Hills
Location: Sun City West, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 25 January 2015, 9:00am
A modern stone structure on a large campus including sanctuary, chapel, campanile, fellowship hall, choir room and office. The sanctuary is a large, bright room with pews angled in toward the platform on which the communion table sits. Choir seating is to the left. On the east wall is a stained glass window representing the Good Shepherd. The table itself is a simple wooden affair flanked by candles.
Their numerous ministries are all well documented on their website. They appear to be very much into mission work, especially among the homeless elderly. There is a casual style service in the chapel on Saturday evenings and two classic style services on Sunday, one in the sanctuary and one in the fellowship hall.
Sun City West is a rather upscale retirement community to the northwest of Phoenix. The church is located in a commercial area, with shopping centers and medical offices. A Lutheran church and Jewish synagogue are nearby, and there is a large private recreation center across the street with park and walking trail.
The Revd Bishop Robert Hoshibata, Bishop of the Desert Southwest Conference, was the preacher. The service was led by the Revd Deanna Self-Price, senior pastor; and the Revd Galene Boyett, associate pastor. Ken Goodenberger, director of music, conducted the choir; Joan Mork and Roberta Sambol played organ and piano, although I don't know who played which. The clergy all wore albs and green stoles, with the bishop sporting a pectoral cross in addition.
What was the name of the service?New Member Sunday: Sanctuary Service.
How full was the building?
Completely full. An elderly congregation in keeping with the demographics of Sun City West. Everyone was dressed in their Sunday best.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Two gentlemen out on the patio shook hands and said hello. Other greeters at the door said hello and handed out bulletins.
Was your pew comfortable?
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Lots of noisy visiting in the back of the church, which made it seem like everybody was talking even though most people inside were sitting quietly. The organist struck up a prelude, which was interpreted as a signal to talk louder. The choir filed in - one lady in the choir thought it appropriate to wave and blow kisses to people she knew in the congregation.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, everyone, and welcome to church."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The United Methodist Hymnal; The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version; bulletin sheet.
What musical instruments were played?
Grand piano, in perfect tune, and a large electronic organ, very nicely voiced. There was a choir of about 40 in purple robes with white scapulars bearing the emblem of the United Methodist Church.
Did anything distract you?
An elderly gent sitting next to me sat so close (even though the pew was not crowded) that I didn't have room to put down my hymnal, notebook or camera, and had to balance them all on my knee as best I could.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A hymn sandwich, with lots of hymns and lots of sandwich makings. New Member Sunday did not (as I had feared) mean that there would be full-steam-ahead recruiting of new members; but rather that about a dozen people who had recently joined the church or had transferred in from elsewhere were formally received via a new member liturgy that resembled baptism without the water. The music was traditional for the most part, with anthems and solos mixed in with congregational singing. Lots of announcements and prayers; a scriptural reading; the bishop's sermon and blessing. No communion today - they have communion the first Sunday of each month.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Bishop Hoshibata spoke very well and very conversationally, with some questions-and-answers and some one-liners thrown in. He did not use the pulpit, but spoke from the center of the platform.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The bishop's text was the scripture reading for the day: Mark 1:14-20 (Jesus calls fishermen to be fishers of men). We are all called by God into mission, to begin a more energetic and satisfying life. Our job is to make disciples for the transformation of the world. So much is happening in the world today that is not good (I noted that the bishop deliberately avoided the word evil). Our mission is to have no part in it, and in fact to put an end to it. We must do good even if we don't personally witness the results. We must stay in love with God.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The music was first class! Among the anthems was a partner song pairing "Kumbaya" with "I have decided to follow Jesus." I'll admit that when I saw "Kumbaya" listed in the bulletin, I couldn't help groaning and rolling my eyes. But their execution of the partner song was very well done and really quite moving. At the offertory the director, a very fine tenor, sang a solo called "Simple Song" based on excerpts from several psalms, which was again very moving. It would have sounded very much at home in the Jewish synagogue next door except that some of the words were in Latin.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
At the start of the service, the candles were lit by a lady wearing a surplice over a little black dress with hemline above her knees, black sheer stockings, and black stiletto heels. Someone needs to run out and buy her a cassock tout suite! Oh, well, at least they were black.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The gent sitting next to me, who left me no room to put down my things, asked me if I belonged to another church. We chatted for a bit. The line at the center exit door was rather slow-moving, as that's where the bishop was shaking hands, so I headed over to a side aisle where there was no line at the side door.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee and an assortment of cookies were served in the fellowship hall. The cookies were good but I thought the coffee was rather flavorless. People visited in groups but no one paid me any attention. I noticed a picture on the wall of Jesus playing a violin. I had always thought that the fiddle was the devil's instrument.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I really liked their music program, but I need more from liturgy than just a hymn sandwich. I may go back on a Sunday when communion is ministered to see what that's like.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Jesus the fiddler.