Mystery Worshipper: Dr Rohr Schalmei
Church: West University United Methodist
Location: Houston, Texas, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 14 December 2008, 11:00am
A traditional Georgian colonial red brick church, with white steeple and colonnaded porch. Begun in 1934 as an outreach Sunday school class of St Paul's United Methodist Church, the chapel and educational building were completed in late 1939, and the sanctuary in 1952. The Christian Life Center, which includes a gymnasium and additional Sunday school classroom space, was completed in 1995. A lovely courtyard with black wrought iron gates is outside just to the right of the sanctuary front doors. The building seems well maintained, with easy on-street parking and easy access from the street.
The congregation seems to be a nice mixture of long-established older folks and young families with children. Their numerous ministries and programs are all well documented on their website. Of special note is Emmaus, a program designed "to inspire, challenge, and equip local church members for Christian action in their homes, churches, and places of work." They also conduct student ministries at nearby Rice University and the University of Houston. There are three services each Sunday: one in the chapel consisting of hymn singing, scripture readings, a children's sermon, and a traditional sermon; another in the sanctuary - a contemporary service called The Well, combining music, scripture, a message, and multi-media presentations in a less formal setting; and a traditional morning worship service in the sanctuary that includes anthems sung by choir. On the first Sunday of the month, holy communion is offered at all services.
West University, also known as West University Place or simply "the Place," is an independent municipality within the city of Houston, named with reference to nearby Rice University. This is one of the most desirable and affluent parts of the Houston area. The city was formed in 1924 when Houston declined to extend electric power lines that far from city center. In 1939, when Houston reconsidered its decision, West University Place elected to remain independent. After World War II, quaint bungalow-type houses were built along the city's pleasant, tree-lined streets. But most of these have been torn down and replaced by modest-sized brick monstrosities.
The Revd Mark B. Woodward, senior pastor, conducted the service, with the opening welcome and announcements given by the Revd Kimberley Orr, associate pastor.
What was the name of the service?Traditional Morning Worship. On this particular date, the chancel choir was presenting its special holiday music, John Rutter's Magnificat, in place of the sermon
How full was the building?
The pews were comfortably full, a mixture of young and old people.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Upon walking up the front steps, I was greeted by three very nice people, the official greeters for the day, I assumed. They asked me if I was a visitor and made me feel most welcome. After entering the front door, I was greeted by an usher who handed me a service bulletin.
Was your pew comfortable?
Very cushy Protestant padded pews. Most comfortable for sitting but deadly for acoustics in the sanctuary.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A manageable level of pre-service chit-chat, nothing too out of the box. Although people were speaking to each other, they seemed to find their places and calm down a bit when the organ prelude began, which was nice.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, and welcome to West University United Methodist Church."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Service leaflet and hymnal. Pew Bibles were in the racks, but I didn't see anyone use them.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ and brass.
Did anything distract you?
Oh YES! The service was a wonderful experience except for the single mother and her two children seated down the pew from me. They arrived after I did, and we smiled and spoke before the service. The remainder of my time sharing a pew with them was a whirlwind of coloring books and crayons (their own stash, not just single sheets provided by the church), action figures, toy cars, etc. Before the service began, I had filled out my visitor's card and laid it on the cushion beside me to turn in at the offertory. When I went to retrieve it, I noticed one of the demons down the pew had stolen it and was drawing on the back of it with a crayon. Finally, after the offertory, in the middle of the service, I picked up my things and moved across to the other side of the aisle. The senior pastor and his family were seated behind me and saw me move. I wound up sitting with some older ladies on the other side, and we enjoyed the choir's special music. (And my nerves were better sitting with them.)
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship style was traditional and fairly formal but not stuffy. There seemed to be multiple opportunities for welcoming people before and during the service; I remember thinking, "Haven't we already done this?"
Exactly how long was the sermon?
No sermon (thank God) because of the special choir presentation. God smiled upon me this day.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I remember being especially moved by the obvious hard work the chancel choir had done in preparing this special music. As I looked around the sanctuary, I wondered if the formality of the piece (sung all in Latin) was a little over-the-heads of the congregation. But they all seemed to soak it in pretty well and were impressed and thankful for their choir's hard work.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
In my entire life I have never gotten up in the middle of a service and moved away from people, and I was actually a little embarrassed to do so. However, with the flurry of crayons and toys down the pew from me, I had had enough at that point and didn't care what people thought. (I have wondered all this time what the pastor and his family thought about me moving – did he even realize why I did?)
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The nice old ladies spoke to me after the service and welcomed me.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was no after-church fellowship time. The choir were all heading to a choir member's house for their choir Christmas party brunch, so I just spoke to people and then we all left.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – This was a special occasion, but I'd like to return for the traditional service on another Sunday. Although I prefer receiving holy communion each Sunday, I still identify my faith tradition as Methodist. However, if the traditional service regularly includes crayons, action figures and unruly children, I'll be out the door and down the street looking elsewhere.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. As a church musician myself, I empathized well with the gift of music the choir and instrumentalists presented to the church on this day.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Action figures and coloring books and toy cars!