A modern structure with lots of plate glass, looking more like an office building or shopping mall than a church – save for an on-its-side cross and the word ‘Central’ high up on the wall. One enters a rather narrow lobby in which one finds a welcome desk, refreshment kiosk, and only two benches to sit on, both of which were occupied. The auditorium is a triangular room, the walls dark brown on the bottom half and beige on the top half. Carpeting is cocoa brown. A large stage held musical instruments and was backed by a projection screen. In the rear were tables on which were set plates of bread morsels and ceramic goblets of grape juice.
They have all the usual ministries commonly found in evangelistic churches such as this: see their website for details. Their core values (quoting from their website) can be summed up as: ‘A community of grace and forgiveness … We seek God's guidance and direction … We primarily exist for the sake of those who are not yet part of the Body of Christ, intending to mature all believers into fully transformed, committed, and reproducing followers of Christ.’ (I took especial note of the word ‘reproducing’ – do they mean it in the sense of Mark 16:15 or, erm, the other way? If the latter, I wondered, how do they feel about those of us whom God created to be attracted to persons of our own sex?) They have six campuses in the greater Phoenix area; at the campus I visited in Glendale, there is a Saturday evening service and two services each Sunday.
They are located on Glendale Avenue at 86th Avenue in this western suburb of Phoenix. The area is primarily middle-class residential. Down Glendale Avenue in one direction, things get a little seedier, with mobile home parks and rather pedestrian Mom-and-Pop businesses. In the other direction is the huge Westgate shopping mall and entertainment complex.
The lead pastor preached his sermon via video. The Glendale campus pastor led the service.
What was the name of the service?Wonder: Christmas at Central.
How full was the building?
It’s a large room. I counted about 50 people at the start of the service, which made the room look rather barren. But people kept trickling in for the next 20 minutes or so. I’d say it was about half full when the lights came back up as the lead pastor’s sermon video began to play.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Just about everyone I encountered said ‘Hello, good morning, welcome, merry Christmas’ or some combination of same.
Was your pew comfortable?
A cushioned chair – comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Upon entering, we had been given a candle. Loud background music was playing. A video was projected of children wishing us a merry Christmas, interspersed with messages such as ‘Please silence your devices,’ ‘Please move to the center of your row,’ ‘Believe in the wonder,’ etc. One slide was of the words to ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.’
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Well, good morning and merry Christmas.’ This by the Glendale campus pastor, who wore an untucked maroon shirt over a red undershirt, charcoal slacks, and black shoes.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
What musical instruments were played?
Keyboard, violin, two guitars, drums. There were two vocalists, a man and a woman.
Did anything distract you?
The stream of people trickling in during the first 20 minutes was a distraction. On the plus side, though, the constant opening and closing of the door from the lobby gave me enough light to take notes by, as the room was otherwise in darkness.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Well, it wasn’t as bad as I had expected. The opening music consisted of a medley of familiar Christmas carols, rock style and very loud, to a pounding drum beat. A video was shown of scenes from New York City at Christmas – this provided the segue into the lead pastor’s sermon, which was also via video. A lady stood in front of one section and interpreted in American Sign Language everything that was being sung or said – fortunately she was illuminated by a spotlight in the otherwise darkened room. We were invited to help ourselves to communion from the elements that had been placed on tables in the rear – no words of institution were pronounced, but the pastor did say that the bread was the Body of Christ and the cup held the Blood of Christ. Also on the tables were containers where we were asked to place our offering.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
15 minutes. I know because the words to the songs were projected onto the rear wall, where the musicians could read them while making believe they had the words memorized – and also projected onto the wall was a countdown clock that timed the songs as well as the sermon.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 — Despite the fact that he preached via video rather than in person, the lead pastor delivered a well developed sermon. He spoke conversationally and was really quite delightful to listen to.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Christmas is a special time for children – everything is so huge and wonderful. As we grow older, things begin to look smaller and not so wonderful anymore. But there is so much beauty in the world to wonder at – and beyond the beauty of the world there is heaven. How high do we want to go? Conversely, how far down did God go at Christmas? (Here the pastor read the Nativity story from scripture: Luke 2.) Why did God become a baby? How messy, how fragile! Why not a college student? It’s because God wanted to become as much like us as he could. The Christmas story, as tender and beautiful as it is, was only a set-up for the real reason why God became us: to save us by his death and resurrection. That’s how much God loves us.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The video of New York City at Christmas brought back some very pleasant and very nostalgic memories. The sign language lady was getting pretty jiggy with it during some of the songs – swinging and swaying and jumping around while she interpreted the lyrics. That was a joy to see.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I have to say, the hard rock arrangements of the Christmas carols. I would much rather have heard them played on a good organ by an organist who knows how to make his instrument speak. And why do booming drums have to accompany everything? When I hear them, I’m always reminded of Emily Dickinson’s lines from her poem ‘I Felt a Funeral in my Brain:’ ‘And when they all were seated,/ A Service, like a Drum –/ Kept beating – beating – till I thought/ My mind was going numb.’
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The campus pastor lit a candle and invited the ushers to come forward and light their candles from it – and then to pass among us lighting the candles we had been given at the door. ‘One tiny light can change the world – that’s what Jesus did at Christmas,’ the pastor said. ‘Ask God to change your life.’ I slipped out at this point without waiting for my candle to be lit.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I visited the refreshment kiosk pre-service, where bagels, Danish pastries, frosted cinnamon buns and donuts were available for sale, along with coffee. The coffee was hot and tasty, just how I like it, but I thought the cinnamon bun I bought was day-old.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 — As I said above, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Rock concert as church is not my style of worship, but there was an element of sincerity and good will here that I found moving. I might stop in again.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
How everything was timed via a countdown clock on the back wall.