Mystery Worshipper: Brad Parker
Location: Chicago, Illinois, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 13 February 2011, 10:00am
The church meets in the Biograph Theater, an old movie house that now presents live productions. The Biograph is where notorious bank robber John Dillinger was shot and killed by FBI agents on July 22, 1934. The theater sits in the middle of the block adjacent to other stores. There is no indication that a church meets here on Sunday morning other than the sign on the sidewalk.
Their website states that they're a church focused on service. The sponsor The Well, a student organization at nearby DePaul University, and women's and men's groups that meet during the week. They also support Lincoln Park Community Shelter and Exodus World Service, an organization that works with refugees.
Ethos Chicago is located a few blocks from DePaul University and Children's Memorial Hospital. You could tell that you were in a university neighborhood by the number of college students walking around. Other than that, the neighborhood is a typical Chicago neighborhood with lots of older buildings.
The Revd Ron May, pastor, led the service. Steve Hendershot, director of worship and arts, was in charge of the music.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Service.
How full was the building?
The building was about three-quarters full. Every row had people in it, but there were plenty of empty seats between the different groups of people. On the day we attended, the congregation was about 80 per cent college students. There were a few couples with children, and there were even fewer adults older than 50. The pastor dressed in business casual, and the congregation wore a mix of casual and business casual.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
We were greeted as we entered the theater lobby by two people handing out bulletins. They did not speak much to us other than to direct us to the coffee. During the greeting time, we did meet a few people who asked where we were from and how we liked Chicago.
Was your pew comfortable?
The seating was very comfortable. With the church meeting in a theater, their seats were individual cushioned theater seats instead of pews.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
More distracting than reverential. That's not a bad thing in this case, because this church wants to be more laid back than others. People were talking to each other about the weekend and sharing their time with each other. The band was warming up. Other people were struggling with the blinds on the windows to see if they could let more light in the room.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
A minute or two after the band began to play, the band leader said, "Good morning, everyone. Welcome to Ethos. Let's stand up and worship."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There were no books for the congregation. The words to the songs and the verses of scripture were written in the bulletin.
What musical instruments were played?
Guitars, bass guitars and drum.
Did anything distract you?
The room was either being renovated, or they were building a set for an upcoming production. The back of the stage was unpainted sheet rock that had been patched in several places. It felt like I was sitting in the middle of someone's home renovation project. And during the sermon I could not help but notice one individual holding his coffee cup up and taking an occasional sip. I don't mind a casual setting, but this one moment almost seemed irreverent, as if we were there for a show instead of worship.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The style was contemporary folk. Although they used electric guitars, the music was definitely not loud or jamming. The songs were a mix of newer songs and older songs done in a contemporary arrangement. The service felt very casual but it did follow an order that I've come to recognize at Presbyterian churches. The bulletin mentioned "reflections" although there were not many moments conducive to reflection. The main speakers were the music leader, one of the students, and the pastor. Periodically when someone would speak, they would mention one of the quotes listed in the reflections section. The combination of the smaller room, the music, and the readings gave the service a coffeehouse feel. There was no communion. During one of the prayers, one of the students prayed for the upcoming elections and mentioned God's sovereignty in choosing the leaders even before the election. This did not seem at all unusual to me because this is, after all, a Presbyterian church.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The preacher used lots of good illustrations that challenged us to think. I was disappointed that, with all of his well chosen illustrations, he delivered the message in a typical three point sermon format. I expected that he would be more creative.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was about how ordinary Christianity is. People are always looking for something extraordinary, but Christians, Jesus, and the gospel are rather ordinary to most outsiders.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The service was filled with many thought provoking moments. Each person who spoke used a great story or quote to relate his message.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The three point sermon! I personally do not like this format. After he rolled out his three points during the introduction, you could easily get distracted and still have an intelligent discussion about the sermon over lunch. And in the hall after the service, several students were going on and on about how one of their fellows had alluded to the existence of God's sovereignty over a political election. It was as if he had made some bold statement that only the most courageous would attempt. Is God's sovereignty a taboo subject here?
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I stood in several places in the church, but no one approached me after the service. I sat in the theater while people stood around having conversations. I hung out by the coffee and donuts where others held conversations. I lingered by the door in the lobby waiting for my wife.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
After the service, the coffee was gone. They have coffee with donuts, muffins, and scones before the service, but I did not try them then. After the service, I attempted to get coffee, but there was only a quarter of a cup left in the three pots. There was a regular, decaf, and a hazelnut flavor. The snacks were higher quality than what you see at your typical donut shop.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – I would really enjoy the worship here. I don't feel like they compromise their theology in trying to make the atmosphere more comfortable. The church is a newer church, so they are not able to offer as much as a more established group. Overall, the setting might be too relaxed for some, but I felt like people were actively engaged in the worship experience. I would be concerned about being asked to take on too many roles.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. All of the leaders were obviously talented and loved God. I was disappointed about not speaking to anyone after the service, but it's not always about me. The sermon helped remind me that we are common people in need of redemption.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The remark about God's influence on elections and the students' reaction to it.