Mystery Worshipper: Pewgilist
Church: The Prayer Palace
Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Date of visit: Sunday, 2 October 2005, 1:00pm
The low, broad expanse of the Prayer Palace dominates the intersection of Highway 400 and Finch Avenue West. The roundish, gear-shaped building, topped by a simple cross, is surrounded by parking enough for a mid-sized shopping mall. Inside, the amphitheatre-like auditorium comes to a focus at a broad, raised stage with a backdrop of faux stone and plastic palm trees; again, one thinks of a mid-sized mall.
Mega-churches are common enough in much of the United States, but in Canada a church that can and does regularly seat thousands is rare nearly to the point of being unique. The Prayer Palace stands out in a number of other ways, too: it claims to be one of Canada's largest churches in terms of square footage; there is a restaurant in one of the wings; the Palace is one of the few evangelical churches with a food bank; it bills itself as Toronto's multicultural church.
Endless strip malls, automobile dealerships, low income housing projects, every manner of restaurant and most of Toronto's gunplay.
The first part of the service was led either by Pastor Tim Melnichuk or his twin brother, Pastor Tom. Senior Pastor Paul Melnichuk presided over the rest of the service, with assistance from his wife, Kathy, and an unnamed fellow who seemed to be in charge of the men's ministry. These five and a few others sat in talk-show type armchairs to the right of the central lucite lectern.
What was the name of the service?Morning Worship Service.
How full was the building?
Filled to something like 80 per cent capacity, the auditorium must have contained easily 2,000 people; a companion guessed nearly 3,000.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was greeted with a handshake from a fellow who directed me to the closed auditorium doors. Once inside, I was greeted by two of the dozen or so gold-jacketed ushers. One, having ascertained that I was a visitor, gave me a brochure and asked me to fill out the visitor information card, the back of which was printed with that oft-seen prayer known as the Salvation Prayer.
Was your pew comfortable?
I was expecting plush theatre chairs, given the theatre-like room, but instead there were banks of standard Pentecostal wooden pews with padded seats and little cup holders. My pew was perfectly comfortable for the three hours I spent in it (yes, three hours, and I didn't stay until the end).
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
As I came in, the band was playing and pastor Tim/Tom was singing. I thought that I may have been late and that the service had already started, but a good quarter of the congregation arrived after I did, and there was still a bit of waving and chatting going on.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Just as I sat down, Pastor Tim/Tom finished his song and said something very close to "Stand and greet those around you in the name of Jesus Christ."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The pews held copies of Hymns of Glorious Praise (commonly used in Canadian Pentecostal chuches), which we used once. Words for the choruses were Powerpointed onto several screens; there were translations in Spanish for most of the songs. Many people brought their own Bibles.
What musical instruments were played?
An eight-piece praise band with keyboard, horns, drums and guitars sat to the left of the pulpit. Above the band, in an aerie decorated with rocks and palms, sat a robed choir of thirty.
Did anything distract you?
I often make a point of searching out distractions so that I'll have something worth mentioning at this point in the report. I wish that I could bank the distractions from this service for future use. I found myself: counting the plastic palm trees; trying discretely to admire some of the spectacular headdresses on the women behind me; puzzling over the meaning of the rocky, rough-hewn wall surmounted by geometric carvings behind the stage; mentally calculating the racial balance of the congregation (almost all black, East Indian and oriental) vs the stage party (almost all white).
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was a little happier-clappier than what I would consider the average for Canadian Pentecostals, and I'd say that the clapping was a little more sophisticated and the singing a little louder. But I was surprised to see that there was very little speaking in tongues. Early in the service, a woman ran to the front of the stage and performed an ecstatic dance that I can only compare to Snoopy's happy dance in the Peanuts cartoon. At one point a young girl came forward and testified that she had "planted a $100 seed" and so "invested in her future," which landed her a job, a place in college, and a $1,200 gift to cover her tuition.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was a 16 minute sermonette and then, about 90 minutes into the service, a 75 minute sermon.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 – Pastor Paul is a television-quality preacher so he must be good, right? Well, had he quit after the 16 minute sermonette, I would have given him a higher rating, but I found 90 minutes of his perma-smile and strident, televangelist tones hard to bear, especially when punctuated by shouting. And then there was the content. It was less a sermon than 90 minutes of dubious advice for young men and women; but even the few snippets of good advice made me cringe, so much of it being justified with deplorable pop psychology and questionable scholarship. For example, Pastor Paul linked "arouse" with eros etymologically during a long tangent on the difference between agape, eros and philos.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
In his sermonette, Pastor Paul recounted prophetic warnings concerning the dangers New Orleans was courting with its sinful ways. God warns us as individuals, too, before he smites us; so if God is sending you warning messages, you'd best shape up or beware. The real sermon began with the reading of 2 Corinthians 6:14-16 ("Be ye not unequally yoked...") and departed on a logic-defying series of tangents to do with love and marriage. For example, we were told that Christian women should not dress like sluts; that men shouldn't beat their wives when they don't understand things because women can't help it; that women should get a good education and be able to support themselves; that one should not trust a church with a woman pastor given that a woman's intuition is susceptible to demonic control, etc., etc.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
It was a treat to be able to sing familiar, upbeat choruses at full voice in such a huge crowd; I felt as if I were at a revival meeting. And the soloist was dramatic and thrilling (if alarmingly amplified).
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Saying, as instructed, "I love you in Jesus Christ" to the several people around me, who limply shook my hand and avoided my eyes as I said it. And I thought saying, "The peace of Christ" to smiling pew-mates every week was unpleasant. And the obvious expense of the clerical haberdashery in a church in the poorest part of Toronto was shocking.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
As the three-hour mark approached and the altar call and second offering were announced, I left, so I really can't say. But I was doing double-duty at the Prayer Palace that Sunday. Not only was I worshipping mysteriously, but I was doing a review for a popular television program that spotlights spirituality in contemporary Canada. When I returned with the crew to film my piece on the sidewalk outside the church, we were shadowed by several church members and interrupted several times by a rather large and imposing usher. A car drove from the church and parked behind our cars for a few minutes; I thought I saw someone in the car take down our license plate numbers. These people were not at all pleasant and obviously strove to make us uncomfortable. Frankly, they gave the creeps; my producer actually feared for our (and our camera's) safety.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I didn't see any sign of after-service coffee, but then, I didn't stay around to look.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – If I had left after the first 90 minutes, I would have said 5 even though this is not really my sort of service. But the shouting, the talk of investing in the future with $100 seeds, and the gospel-lacking, bad-psychology-laden preaching brought the number way down. I refrain from saying 1 only because I can't accuse the Prayer Palace of being boring.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
No. Why does enthusiastic worship so often come yoked to intellectually and doctrinally impaired teaching?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The dozens of plastic palm trees.