Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwyth
Church: First Southern Baptist
Location: Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 November 2018, 10:30am
An odd geometrically shaped building, not unpleasant to look at. Inside, one enters a roomy lobby with upholstered benches against the walls. The sanctuary is triangular, with beige walls and light brown carpeting. Behind the stage is a stained glass window depicting Christ with open arms and the caption ‘Come unto me.’
They are located on the campus of Grand Canyon University, a private Christian institution formerly affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention (with which it severed ties in 2000) and which claims to be the largest non-denominational Christian university in the world. The church is not, however, connected with the University. They sponsor several ministries for preschoolers, children, students, adults and seniors. Their Open Arms ministry supplies food and clothing for the needy. Their library ministry includes (quoting from their website) ‘inspirational and devotional works, biographies of great Christians, church history, guides for Christian living, marriage, parenting, Christian fiction and many other topics.’ There are services each Sunday in English, Spanish, Burmese, and Kirundi.
They are located on Camelback Road, a major east-west thoroughfare, at 31st Avenue, just a few blocks west of the intersection of Camelback and Interstate 17, which connects Phoenix with Flagstaff to the north. The demographics are predominantly working-class. The modern, sprawling campus of Grand Canyon University stands in stark contrast to the plain, simple housing stock.
The pastor preached the sermon and gave the closing benediction. Another gentleman who was not identified gave the welcome and made miscellaneous remarks. There was also a gentleman who conducted the choir and led the congregation in song – well, attempted to, as I didn’t see very many people singing.
What was the name of the service?Worship Service in English.
How full was the building?
I counted about 400 seats and it was about half full. Mostly an elderly crowd, with just a scattering of students. The Burmese contingency (see below) sat off to one side; I was pleased to see that it consisted almost entirely of young people.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was a bit early, so I took a seat on one of the benches in the lobby. A gentleman, who turned out to be the pastor, came up to me and said, ‘I’ve met you, haven’t I?’ I introduced myself and we chatted for a bit about various church activities. He explained that the Spanish, Burmese and Kirundi speaking congregations meet in separate quarters but that they join the English speaking congregation on a rotating basis. Today, he said, the Burmese congregation would be joining us but that they usually sit by themselves off to the side (which in fact they did). He also said not to expect to see many students – they mostly come to the late afternoon service, he said, adding, ‘This type of service is not for them.’ 'It would be,' I replied, 'if they had their priorities straight.' Inside, a lady came up to me, introduced herself, and said, ‘Hello and welcome.’ But no one else paid me any attention.
Was your pew comfortable?
They were theater-style seats and were very comfortable. Spaced evenly along the back wall were eight chairs that looked like thrones. I wondered whom they were for.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The usual visiting among friends. A series of miscellaneous videos was projected onto the screens. Just before start time, a group of 15 elderly people walked up onto the stage and sat in chairs that had been provided for them. If they are the church elders, I thought, they certainly look the part. Turns out they were the choir.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Good morning, everyone.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. Words to the songs were projected. The Holy Bible, New International Version, was in the seats but was not referenced.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, grand piano, two violins, two guitars, cello, saxophone, and a native American flute for one number.
Did anything distract you?
Some of the pew Bibles appeared to have graffiti written on them! And the projection screens had been pulled down over the organ pipe chambers – the pipes were doing their best to peek out from behind.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A hymn sandwich. The music, with some notable exceptions (see below), was all ‘Singing Nun does karaoke.’ Mind you, I am not a fan of church music of the easy-listening genre, but I will admit that some of it can be inspiring. Today’s selections were not. The sandwich parts of the hymn sandwich consisted of a talk about the meaning of Veterans Day (which today was) and a meet and greet during which many people shook my hand. There were no prayers other than the prayer with which the pastor concluded his sermon. There were no announcements. There was also no reading from scripture – the pastor merely referred to parts of the text on which his sermon was based; he did not read the passage in toto.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 — The pastor spoke clearly and was easy to understand, but I thought he could have organized his remarks a bit tighter.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
His text was Mark 7:1-23 (what comes out, rather than what goes in, is what defiles a person). Jesus’ ministry had reached the point where his opponents as well as his disciples were beginning to seek him out. Everyone has a personal world view – we have ours, and the Pharisees had theirs. They thought that observance of customs handed down by man (e.g. ceremonial washing of hands) was more important than observing God’s law. What we may see, hear or read in our daily going-about does not have to be a part of our lives. It’s what we do that counts. We are in the world, but we do not have to be a part of the world view of those who ignore God.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I mentioned above that there were some notable exceptions to the ‘Singing Nun does karaoke’ style of music. At the offertory, a gentleman played ‘Going Home,’ based on the second movement of Antonin Dvořák’s New World Symphony, on the native American flute accompanied by piano. It could have been more technically perfect, and certainly more in keeping with what Dvořák wrote, but it was moving nonetheless. And immediately after the sermon we sang that old tear-jerker ‘The Savior is waiting to enter your heart – Why don’t you let him come in?’ A tear-jerker, yes, but a heart-rending one. But the most heavenly bit of all was the closing song, the spiritual ‘Soon and very soon.’
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
As part of the Veterans Day observance, the song leader sang a number about a young soldier who had been captured and tortured by the enemy but still considered it an honor and a privilege to lay down his life for his country. Veterans Day, originally Armistice Day, was at first a commemoration of the ending of World War I, the so-called ‘Great War to end all wars.’ As if it did. I was reminded of poet-warrior Wilfrid Owen’s most famous line: ‘The old lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.’
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The pastor ended with a benediction, we sang ‘Soon and very soon,’ and the musicians continued the tune as people got up and left. One gentleman shook my hand and said he hoped he’d see me again, but no one else paid me any attention. I spoke briefly with the organist about her instrument – turns out it’s a Rodgers electric organ, and the pipes (with projection screens pulled down over) are merely ornamental, left over from a previous installation. I told her what a pleasant surprise it was to hear ‘Soon and very soon.’
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None had been announced, and I don’t think any was on offer. I retired to El Taco Tote, a popular Mexican restaurant just down the street, and enjoyed a delicious lunch of tacos al pastor.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 — Even though this is really not my style of worship (like the students, I guess, who come to the late afternoon service), I was moved by the sincerity of the congregation and by those songs that departed from the Singing Nun genre. I just might stop by again.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
After a while.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
‘Soon and very soon.’