Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwyth
Church: Sun Valley Mennonite
Location: El Mirage, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 6 March 2011, 10:45am
A low, flat, plain building. The inside is plain, with white walls and light purple carpeting and pew cushions. In front is a raised platform with a lectern and several chairs.
Also called Holdeman Mennonite, this offshoot of the Old Mennonite Church was founded in 1859 by preacher John Holdeman, who felt that the parent church had suffered a spiritual decline. The Holdeman Mennonites are ultra-conservative in their beliefs and embrace a simple, modest, non-violent lifestyle. Holdeman Mennonites do not vote or serve in the military or in law enforcement. They educate their children in a privately run school system only up to the eighth grade unless required by law to educate them further. They do not own televisions, radios or CD players. Telephones and computers are allowed, but not for frivolous purposes. They drive plain, non-sporty cars (without radios). They dress conservatively, the women wearing long plain dresses and close fitting caps (exchanging them for veils when in church), and the men sporting beards and wearing plain trousers and shirts without neckties.
El Mirage is one of the northwestern suburbs of Phoenix, primarily residential in character, with large tracts of irrigated farmland. It is located near Luke Air Force Base, and property values suffer due to noise generated by air traffic at the base. Despite that, El Mirage boasts several new upper-middle-class residential communities, although there is also a large poor Hispanic migrant population. The church is surrounded by farmland and modest housing. A Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall, Southern Baptist church and Traditional Catholic church are nearby.
There were four elders and a song leader, but no names were given or available to be discovered. The elders all sat on the raised platform and wore suits but no neckties.
What was the name of the service?Worship Service.
How full was the building?
I counted room for about 120 and it was 95 per cent full. All age groups were about evenly represented. Men sat to the right and women to the left, and both sections were full. All the women wore identical black veils.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Several people entering the same time as I did said hello. After I was seated, one gentleman stopped by my pew and shook my hand.
Was your pew comfortable?
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I had taken the precaution of unscrewing the radio antenna from the Amandamobile, and looking around the parking lot I spotted not a single antenna on any car. I entered a vestibule where several devotional pamphlets had been arranged on a table and wall rack. Sunday school classes could be heard through several closed doors. One class was being held in front of the sanctuary. At precisely 10.45, a chime sounded and all the Sunday school doors opened as if on cue. People filed out and found seats in the sanctuary, all in total silence.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, and welcome to everyone here this morning."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Christian Hymnal, which is the official hymn book of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite.
What musical instruments were played?
None. Holdeman Mennonites believe that musical instruments (quoting from their website) "detract from the sanctity and simplicity of one's spiritual life in Christ." They do, however, sing in unaccompanied four-part harmony, and we sang several hymns in perfect harmony and in perfect tune.
Did anything distract you?
I am happy to report that no cell phones went off, as no one was wearing one. One of the elders looked like Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame. Another elder, the one who gave the sermon, either had a cold or suffered from allergies, as he kept wiping his nose and blowing it into a handkerchief.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Stern and to the point. We opened with a hymn, some announcements, and another hymn. One of the elders then read several passages from the Bible (King James version, I believe) and preached the sermon. This was followed by commentary on the sermon by another elder (the one who looked like Colonel Sanders), a prayer, a final hymn, and benediction. Everyone knelt on the bare floor for the prayer and stood for the benediction; otherwise we remained seated throughout. There was no communion today, but Holdeman Mennonites do practice closed communion plus the washing of feet.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – The elder spoke intimately and conversationally and did not use notes. I thought he got off to a strong start and finished strong, but he tended to ramble in the middle, introducing several anecdotes that he never quite seemed to finish.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
We were once blind, lame, and in bondage, but God called us and we came to God. He cleansed us. But what now? What's next? We are in the world but apart from it. Sometimes the outside influences of the world draw us to "cool off" from doing God's work. We all have flaws, and we see flaws in others. We can't heal ourselves, nor can we heal others. But we can go to Jesus and lead others to him. Jesus will heal us if we allow him to. That's what God wants. God invites us, but he never forces us. He will keep reaching out to us, as we must reach out to others. Eventually we'll come back.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The unaccompanied four-part singing was a joy to experience.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The elders kept referring to members as "brother", "sister" and "brethren". I thought this would be admirable were it not for the fact that Holdeman Mennonites do not regard members of other Christian denominations as part of the universal church or as their "brothers" or "sisters".
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After the benediction, people began to visit quietly amongst themselves. No one took any notice of me, however, although I did detect some glances in my direction. I placed my Mystery Worship calling card on the pamphlet table in the vestibule (there had been no collection) and left. I don't really expect that any of them will browse to the Ship of Fools, that frivolous website! As soon as I got home, I screwed the antenna back on my car.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – Miss Amanda is too much a woman of the world, she's afraid.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. I heard nothing in the sermon, prayer or benediction that I would regard as unorthodox.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The four-part unaccompanied singing.