First UMC, Phoenix, AZ (Exterior)

First United Methodist, Phoenix, Arizona, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: First United Methodist
Location: Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 8 March 2015, 11:00am

The building

It dates from the 1950s and is a nice blend of Spanish Mission and mid-twentieth century modern styles. From the parking lot, one passes through a labyrinthine maze of offices, classrooms and meeting rooms to enter a large lobby adorned with some lovely stained glass. One window includes the logos of various Christian denominations, including Roman Catholic (papal tiara and keys of St Peter), with the Greek word oikoumene (literally, the inhabited world, but which we use to signify unity among religions). The sanctuary is long and narrow, culminating in a large stone communion table against the east wall. Over the table is a stained glass window that bathes the sanctuary in purplish light. Choir seating is in front of the communion table. Large TV screens are placed at various locations throughout the sanctuary.

The church

Their ministries are all well documented on their website. They have a very diverse music program, with youth, chancel and handbell choirs plus a praise band and a busy concert series. There is a parish nurse who oversees a number of health ministries. They offer interpretation for the deaf at the early service each Sunday.

The neighborhood

This is Central Avenue, the principal commercial corridor of Phoenix. Its upper reaches are lined with large, posh houses on large, leafy green lots. The church sits pretty much on the border between commercial Central Avenue and residential Central Avenue. A large Baptist church is across the street.

The cast

The Revd Mike Pearson, senior pastor, made announcements, gave the children's talk, and led the prayers and benediction. The Revd Melissa Rynders, associate pastor, pronounced the assurance of pardon, read the scripture lesson, and preached. Don Richardson, liturgist, gave the call to worship. Joshua Elder, minister of music, conducted the choir, with Ron Rhode at the organ and piano. Both of the clergy wore black Geneva gowns, the senior pastor donning a purple stole over his, and the associate pastor a black stole with grey and purple designs.

What was the name of the service?

Classic Worship

How full was the building?

It is a large church and it was completely full - mostly a middle aged to elderly crowd, all very well dressed.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A lady at the door handed me a service leaflet with a smile and a hello. As I was waiting in the lobby for choir practice to finish, a gentleman introduced himself and asked me if I had been there before.

Was your pew comfortable?

OK but not plush - wooden pew with thin cushion that was not fastened down.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

After choir practice finished, some choir members remained in their places and others went down into the congregation to visit with friends. There was quite a bit of loud talking and visiting. The organist struck up a prelude, which most people interpreted as a signal to talk louder.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning. Please rise as you are able."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, the United Methodist Hymnal, and The Faith We Sing were in the pews, but everything was projected onto the TV screens.

What musical instruments were played?

A very fine pipe organ, originally installed in 1959 by Casavant Freres of St-Hyacinthe, Quebec, Canada. It was rebuilt by Robert L. Sipe Inc. Organbuilders of Garland, Texas, who revoiced and rescaled the original pipework. Further additions were made in 2007. There was a mixed choir of about 30 voices. A grand piano was used for one of the choir anthems, and Karen Eshoff played clarinet during both of the anthems.

Did anything distract you?

The choir wore shiny blue gowns with purple scapulars, which I thought looked a bit fey. There were two young men who were identified as acolytes but whose sole duty seemed to be to collect written prayer requests from the congregation. They both wore albs, under which one of them wore black slacks, socks and leather shoes but the other wore jeans and grey and yellow glow-in-the-dark sneakers. One wore a purple scapular over his alb, the other a pink scapular. Unfortunately the acolyte in proper haberdashery was the one who had chosen the pink scapular.

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

As stiff-upper-lip as Methodists get. The hymns and choir anthems were all traditional and the prayers fairly conventual. Everything was done with dignity. There was a children's talk as well as a sermon, but no communion today.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

16 minutes.

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

6 – I'm pretty sure that Associate Pastor Rynders was reading her sermon from a prepared text, although she was trying hard to look like she wasn't. She spoke in a high pitched sing-songy little girl voice that was difficult to understand. The bulk of her sermon consisted of an anecdote about a rabbi and an abbot, and I really was having a hard time following the point she was trying to make.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Her text was the scripture reading for the day: Mark 9:33-37 (Jesus rebukes his disciples for arguing about who was the greatest). Jesus wants us to be leaders, not followers - but insignificant leaders, like a child. The Kingdom of God is not up there somewhere, but down here! We must imagine greatness as Jesus wanted us to imagine it.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The organist, Ron Rhode, is a seasoned musician with a fine instrument at his command. His support of the congregational singing was especially well done: he played at a steady brisk tempo using appropriate registrations and at sufficient volume.

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

After the sermon, when the associate pastor put down the microphone, it must have become disconnected somehow, for when the senior pastor picked it up to lead the prayers and give the benediction, all we heard was the thumping of books on the podium. His words were inaudible.

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

The visiting started up again but no one gave me any notice. The gentleman manning the sound booth caught my attention - he was wearing a cool dude hat that looked rather sharp on him! I saw the associate pastor shaking hands at the door, but I didn't have the heart to tell her I couldn't understand her sermon and so I slipped out a side door.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

None was announced, and I didn't see evidence of any.

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

5 – It's a beautiful building and I like their strong music program. I know they're Methodists, but I dont think John Wesley would have called anyone an acolyte unless he were actually lighting candles. And he certainly wouldn't have dressed an acolyte in a pink scapular even on Laetare Sunday (which today wasn't). I would also look for stronger preaching - reading a sermon is not the same as preaching it. Wesley would have been the first to say that. Finally, Cool Dude, take note: gentlemen don't wear hats in church, not even Methodist gentlemen!

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


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

The cool dude in the sound booth.

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