United Church of God, Tempe, AZ (Exterior)

United Church of God, Tempe, Arizona, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: United Church of God
Location: Tempe, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 24 May 2015, 10:30am

The building

They meet at Temple Emanuel, a reform Jewish synagogue in Tempe (pronounced tem-PEE), a suburb to the southeast of Phoenix that is home to Arizona State University. However, this Pentecost service was held at the Radisson Phoenix North, a sprawling modern glass-and-concrete hotel located in Phoenix's Metro Center shopping mall complex. The service was held in the hotel's Canyon Ballroom, a square room with chandeliers, light yellow walls, and a patterned carpet. A lectern stood at the front.

The church

The denomination calls itself United Church of God, an International Association (italics included) to distinguish them from others bearing similar names. These include not only the United Church of God (minus the italicized epithet), but also the Worldwide Church of God; the Church of God, a Worldwide Organization; the Church of God, an International Community; and other groups considered to be offshoots at best or schismatic at worst. Confused? All of these churches fall under the category of Sabbatarianism (the polite term) or Armstrongism (the impolite term; so called after the televangelist Herbert W. Armstrong, who founded the movement in 1934). All of these groups believe that the church that Jesus established has become corrupted by pagan influences over the ages, and that the true church of Jesus is one that adheres more closely to Jewish beliefs and worship practices. As such they observe Saturday as the Sabbath, follow Jewish dietary laws, and keep the Jewish holy days. They shun the traditional Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter as being mere pagan festivals, and seem to be especially opposed to keeping St Valentine’s Day. This congregation merged with another congregation in northwest Phoenix earlier this year. Their web calendar is bereft of entries; however, they do appear to sponsor a number of youth programs, visitation of the sick, food assistance, etc.

The neighborhood

Once one of the more fashionable shopping malls in the greater Phoenix area, Metro Center has fallen on hard times as new malls have opened elsewhere. Nowadays the mall itself features more vacant storefronts than trendy boutiques. However, the area surrounding the mall still hosts several popular restaurants and a movie theater as well as the Radisson Phoenix North Hotel. [Editor's note: Metro Center was permanently closed in December 2020.]

The cast

The Revd Randy Schreiber, pastor, preached the main sermon, but there was also a sermonette preached by someone whose name was not given. Tiffany Christensen sang a solo, and a young boy whose name I didn't note played the piano during the offertory. The worship leader likewise was not named.

What was the name of the service?

Pentecost Service.

How full was the building?

Completely full. There were 330 chairs set out (I know because the worship leader mentioned it) and more had to be brought in. Lots of children and youth plus adults of all ages. Everyone was dressed in their, erm, Sabbath best. I had chosen my nicest Pentecost red outfit but felt somewhat underdressed nonetheless.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No. One or two people shook my hand and said hello, but I was ignored for the most part.

Was your pew comfortable?

Standard hotel conference chair - comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Everyone was standing around visiting with friends. Most of the seats had been saved with papers, hymnals, water bottles, jackets, etc. placed on them. As I started taking notes my pen went dry, and I went out to the hotel's front desk to see if I could borrow another one. When I returned, someone had taken my seat. I spied a lone chair against the back wall and made for it.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"All right. It's that time."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

United Church of God Hymnal. There was no program or order of service.

What musical instruments were played?

Digital piano.

Did anything distract you?

There was lots of eye candy - handsome young men very smartly dressed.

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

Not happy-clappy but relaxed nonetheless. The hymns were all traditional-sounding although I recognized few of them. The service opened with three hymns, followed by a prayer and a sermonette. Then the collection was taken up. Call me naughty, but just for the occasion I had prepared a special Mystery Worship Calling Card that included an icon of St Valentine, which I deposited in the basket when it came my way. The collection was followed by a vocal solo, announcements, and the main sermon. The service concluded with a closing hymn and a prayer.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes (sermonette); 50 minutes (main sermon).

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

5 – That's the average score, as I would give Pastor Schreiber a 4 and the sermonette preacher a 6. Both spoke in a relaxed, conversational style and made good eye contact with the congregation, but I also think both of them rambled. Pastor Schreiber's sermon was well constructed and had an interesting theme, but he rambled way too much for me to score him any higher. He spoke for 50 minutes but could have made his point in 10. The congregation were politely attentive throughout, but there was a palpable sigh of relief when he finally walked away from the lectern.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

(Sermonette) Life is full of trials, some of which are caused by our foolishness or disobedience but others of which are caused by the actions of other people. God wants perfection and wants us to be perfect. In his goodness he gives us trials for our own good. Without trials there would be no kingdom of God. We move toward the kingdom of God through repentance. Its a slow process - God isn't finished with us yet. Look at Job: he was a good and righteous man, yet God tested him in ways we ourselves would find hard to endure. And yet Job's faith was deeper in the end. We should want to do whatever it takes to achieve perfection in God's eyes. (Main sermon) The miracle of Pentecost is a fulfillment of the prophecy in Joel 2:28: all flesh shall see the Spirit. Sin cuts us off from God, but Christ redeems us through the Spirit. All mankind has been given the opportunity to be nourished by the Spirit. We are all special in God's eyes when we turn to him.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

As the collection was being taken up, a young boy played a piano solo. It was clearly a child's recital piece, and yet it was played note-perfect and with genuine feeling. It was really quite beautiful. And to their credit, the congregation did not applaud.

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

The disadvantage of sitting in a chair against the back wall was that I had to endure a continual parade of people going in and out, I assume to use the facilities (as indeed I did in mid-sermon).

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

After the final prayer, people started visiting again. Eventually they began walking out into the lobby and out the doors. I stood around both inside the ballroom and in the lobby, but no one noticed me or said anything to me.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Special for the occasion of Pentecost, there was a soup and salad buffet available in one of the hotel's banquet rooms - or people could bring their own food from home - or as a final option, private parties could retire to a variety of nearby dining spots. The buffet was a ticketed affair, and people were expected to have purchased their tickets beforehand; none were on sale. So I just left.

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

3 – I'd like to drop in on one of their regular Sabbath services to see if they're structured the same way. The traditional music was refreshing, and everyone sang with gusto, but I'd want tighter preaching. Also, they seemed very cliquish and unwelcoming of visitors, but that may just have been the unaccustomed venue. If they were that way at their temple services, I wouldn't be back.

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

I'm going to say neutral on this one.

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

The eye candy. Pity they're so down on the notion of St Valentines Day!

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