Mystery Worshipper: Angel Unaware
Church: Highland Park United Methodist
Location: Dallas, Texas, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 14 November 2010, 9:30am
Constructed in 1926, the Gothic style building stands majestically at the southern end of the mall of the Southern Methodist University of Dallas. Its tall carillon tower flew denominational and national flags. Inside, the church has recently completed a major restoration of the sanctuary, including the installation of a magnificent pipe organ by the Dobson firm of Lake City, Iowa, in a walnut organ case. Slate and marble floors, exposed walnut ceiling beams, and multi-colored stained glass windows complete the opulent interior.
It seems to be the flagship church of the university, even though most worshippers were much older. In fact, we saw very few students. Their many ministries and outreaches are well documented on their website. These include nine services on a Sunday, including traditional, contemporary, and "Anglican style" worship. Their outreach work includes projects for children with special needs and homeless people, and involvement with microfinance and education projects overseas. The other item of note is that this is the home church of George W. and Laura Bush, former President and First Lady of the United States.
The church and university are located in the posh, upscale area of Dallas known as Highland Park. With a population of around 8,000, Highland Park ranks among the wealthiest locales in the USA and is home to an upmarket shopping mall.
The preacher was the Revd Mark Craig, senior minister. The liturgist was the Revd Arville McLain, associate minister.
What was the name of the service?A Service of Worship
How full was the building?
Mostly full. Shoulder-to-shoulder well-dressed, all-Caucasian country club folk. We spotted only one gentleman without jacket and tie (so did the usher read on). Most ladies wore smart sweater sets or business suits; many were in hats, some even properly gloved. However, George and Laura were not in attendance that morning.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
We arrived by car and asked a parking valet (wearing a uniform complete with church logo and fluorescent yellow vest) where we should park as first time visitors. She waved us to a garage about a half block away on the other side of the street. However, when we walked up to the church door, we noticed six empty parking slots labeled "Reserved for first time guests." Additionally, not one person spoke to us the entire morning, save an usher who asked us to move our seat, saying tersely, "This is where the usher sits."
Was your pew comfortable?
Straight backed and wooden.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Country club folk noisily exchanging handshakes and air kisses. This continued until the organ prelude was complete.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The United Methodist Hymnal.
What musical instruments were played?
The powerful Dobson pipe organ was expertly handled by organist Bradley Hunter Welch. He not only offered a beautiful prelude and postlude, but also led congregational singing effectively even if very few parishioners (including the senior minister) sang. But a further word about the music in a moment.
Did anything distract you?
The slate and marble floor amplified the clicking of high heels. It also projected clearly the voice of the usher who ordered us out of our seat and who later was heard chiding the jacketless young man across from us: "Son, wheres your jacket?"
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Incongruous. In this formal Gothic building, stunningly beautiful, newly restored and immaculately maintained; at a service attended by worshippers dressed to the nines; with robed clergy and choir who entered in procession one would assume that upper lips would be as stiff as stiff could be. However, to use the words of my companion, the ministers style "was of a country bumpkin." He was very informal, cracked jokes, openly coughed into the microphone, and did not sing. He even went so far as to instruct the organist that the closing hymn needed to be "peppy for these peppy people." The hymnody, in fact, seemed to be out of sync with everything else. We sang 19th century gospel revival numbers mixed in with 1970s contemporary choruses. Or at least some of us sang.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
3 – The senior minister began with a good story but then seemed to search for Biblical text to support it. It quickly devolved into a series of unrelated stories. In the end, no single point was eloquently made and the sermon was simply bland. Aside from the repeated, distracting coughs into the microphone, the preacher seemed enamored with himself and his own life and stories. I was certainly made aware of the exciting, important life he leads. Pity he didn't make his sermon "peppy for these peppy people."
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was entitled "Truth or Consequences." As nearly as I could piece it out, he encouraged us to be wise by building on solid scriptural foundations and to take ownership for the building of such a home. He stressed telling the truth, which is wisdom, over the consequence of sin, which is foolishness.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The inspiring organ playing in a most beautiful building.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
A service that seemed out of place given its setting.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We followed directions to the welcome kiosk but found no welcome there. We then busied ourselves playing with the interactive computer screens on the lobby walls before we strolled out through a garden exit.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
We couldnt find the coffee, nor did we hear anyone mention where it was being served, or even if there was any.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 – We'll keep looking, thank you.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
No. My companion and I both felt that the churchs success in attracting large numbers (there were no less than five services offered that morning alone) may be due more to a gift of history and location (a university campus in a posh suburb) rather than to commitment to the scriptures and offering hospitality to strangers.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The Dobson organ and gifted organist.