Christ’s Church of the Valley, Phoenix, Arizona, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Christ’s Church of the Valley, Phoenix
Location: Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 3 September 2023, 11:00am

The building

They have 16 (count ‘em, 16!) locations throughout the Phoenix metropolitan area; I visited the one in the city’s Maryvale neighborhood. It’s a large, plain building, looking very much like a barn or a blimp hangar. The interior is plain but not unattractive, with six steps leading up to a stage. On the stage was a digital keyboard – nothing else. At the back of the stage was a large video screen, and on the wall behind was a cross in stained glass – rather nice looking.

The church

This is a megachurch, probably the best known megachurch in the area, judging from the ‘CCV’ decal (in characters that resemble Hebrew script) one observes on the back window of just about every other car one sees on the street. I couldn’t begin to describe all their ministries, which are well documented on their website. If I had to pick one to mention, it would be their Special Needs ministry, whose passion is to see (quoting from their website) ‘children and adults with developmental differences grow in their understanding of God's great love for them, because we understand the unique challenges of caring for a child with special needs.’ They also sponsor a Special Needs camp ‘filled with fun activities, worship, Bible teaching and the chance to build relationships with coaches and peers.’ At the Maryvale location, there are two services each Sunday, plus a Monday service.

The neighborhood

Maryvale is located on Phoenix’s west side, and is named after the developer’s wife, not the Blessed Mother. It is a working class residential neighborhood, heavily Hispanic, somewhat notorious for gang-related crimes and (urban legend has it) packs of feral chihuahuas that nip at the ankles of pedestrians and bicyclists. The church is located at 35th Avenue and Montebello Avenue amid a decidedly plebeian and somewhat ragtag collection of single-family homes.

The cast

The associate pastor welcomed us and bade us farewell at the end. The teaching pastor preached via a video.

What was the name of the service?

‘Service’ so far as I could tell – I don’t think it had any other name.

How full was the building?

There was room for 468 according to the sign which by law is fastened to the back wall. The place was completely full – they had to set out extra chairs. Mostly a young to middle aged crowd, although I spotted some oldsters.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

There was a Guest Services tent set up in front of the main entrance, but I avoided it. Even so, several people said ‘good morning’ and one gentleman held the door for me. There was a uniformed Phoenix city police officer stationed at the entrance – probably looking to see if anyone was packing a gun. I’m surprised he didn’t search my bag, but he would have found only my cell phone and notebook. Inside, one woman said, ‘Good morning, how are you today?’ but no one else said anything to me.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes – padded pew.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Lots of talking and visiting. Announcements were being projected on the screen, and a stream-of-consciousness music track was playing. Several bowls of little hourglass-shaped plastic containers were set out in the rear of the church, one side of the hourglass holding a tiny cube of bread and the other a small amount of grape juice. A sign read, ‘Please help yourself to communion.’ People were helping themselves and carrying the containers to their seats – more about how communion was handled later.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘So glad to see you here to worship the Lord.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

None whatsoever. Words to the songs – but nothing else – were projected.

What musical instruments were played?

Digital keyboard and acoustic guitar. There was a female vocalist, and the two instrumentalists also sang.

Did anything distract you?

An usher – a young woman – carried an IV bottle on a pole. It was obviously feeding some sort of liquid into her. A gentleman with a profound limp wore a t-shirt that read ‘Coach’ – I wondered what he coached and if his limp was an impediment. Another young gentleman wore a t-shirt that read ‘Loveless Café, Nashville, Tennessee.’ What is the atmosphere like in a café that is devoid of love? I wondered to myself. (It’s apparently a well-known landmark in Nashville.) And it never fails to amaze me that so many young gentlemen have forgotten what their fathers taught them about removing one’s hat indoors, especially in church. Or do fathers no longer teach their sons how a gentleman dresses? (I think I know the answer to that question.) One young man did remove his hat, but only to scratch his head; he put it back on after he was satisfied.

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

Happy-clappy was definitely the word of the day. The service opened with 15 minutes of country-ish, bluesy-ish music that was actually better than what I feared I would be in for – at least there was no percussion and no electric guitars. The lyrics were considerably more literary than the second-grade-reading-level drivel you usually get with ‘worship songs’ – the Wesley brothers or the Bach boys could have worked them up into something interesting. People were hooting, clapping, waving their arms, etc. I thought that one young woman would begin dancing in the aisle at any moment, and just when I had decided that she wasn’t going to – she did! When the music was done, the associate pastor welcomed us, gave some announcements, and recited a prayer. This was followed by the sermon (see below), more announcements by the associate pastor, and a good-bye. No blessing, no scripture readings, no prayers other than that mentioned, no exchange of peace, no creed. In short, almost no ‘church stuff.’

Exactly how long was the sermon?

35 minutes.

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

4 — The teaching pastor delivered his sermon via a video. He was obviously preaching in a different location, judging from when the camera panned to the audience – oops, I mean congregation. He spoke clearly and in a relaxed manner, and referred only now and then to notes he had in front of him, but I thought he could have made his point in half the time.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

His text (although he didn’t read the passage, but rather quoted bits and pieces) was 2 Kings 6:24-7:20 (God delivers the Samaritans from famine as Elisha had foretold). He began by describing a video his family had made and posted online to celebrate the birthday of one of their members. He said he received an email from a total stranger thanking him for thinking of his (the stranger’s) birthday. The pastor didn’t have the heart to tell him the video was not meant for him. From this he segued into his main point: the gospel speaks to each of us personally, but it also speaks to all of mankind. Never question God, as the Samaritans had done regarding the famine. Your disbelief will not stop God from accomplishing his will. Think of what your life was like before you came to God, and what it is like now after you have accepted God. Write it down: ‘I was … then God … and now …’ Speak to others of your faith. God can use your story to inspire others.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

To be honest, I don’t think the following rises to heaven, but I did enjoy the teaching pastor’s sermon despite its length and despite it being delivered via video (which is why I scored it a 4). He peppered his remarks with light, humorous little bits that kept me wondering what he would say next.

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

But let’s talk about communion, shall we? After the associate pastor’s opening remarks and before the teaching pastor’s sermon, a slide was projected describing the bread and grape juice as ‘symbols of faith’; this was followed by several slides of Bible quotes (but not the words of institution). I noticed people beginning to eat their bread cubes and drink their grape juice, but at no point had we been invited to do so. It didn’t feel like a communal meal at all – merely snack time. That’s not what Jesus did at the Last Supper.

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

After the associate pastor’s closing remarks, everybody just sort of got up and left. No one took any notice of me.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Their website states, ‘We serve up delicious coffee and food every weekend and encourage you to stick around after services to enjoy a meal with others.’ But no mention had been made of where a first-time visitor might find the snack bar. I looked around and looked around, and tried to determine where people were headed, but they seemed headed in multiple directions and I never did find where the ‘delicious coffee and food’ was hiding. So I left and had lunch at my favorite Chinese buffet. And no, I didn’t spot a single chihuahua, feral or otherwise.

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

1 — Again according to their website, ‘We guarantee that you’ll walk away feeling encouraged and challenged.’ No. I walked away feeling out of place. As I said, this is the most well known megachurch in the Phoenix metropolitan area, and obviously thousands of people find it to their liking. I guess it goes to prove that people don’t need ‘church stuff’ to lead them to God. I don’t begrudge them for that, but as for me, give me all the ‘church stuff’ you can, if you please.

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

It left me feeling neutral.

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

Strange to say – the girl with the IV bottle and the young man from the Loveless Café.

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