Mystery Worshipper: Gaylord's Hump
Church: Luther Memorial
Location: Blacksburg, Virginia, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 13 November 2016, 11:00am
It is a brick building with striking angles and a cross prominently displayed. While the decorations on the interior betray its 1970s era origins, you couldn't tell it by the exterior. It still appears modern and the cross grabs my attention every time I have a chance to drive by it, which is quite often. Their first church building was started in 1883, constructed of hand-made bricks formed on-site and fired on a temporary kiln. When that building was torn down in the 1970s for the move to the current church building, many of the bricks were salvaged, cleaned by hand by church members, and used to build the altar table and pulpit of the present church.
Luther Memorial's pastor, William King, was chosen as the Christian representative to speak at the convocation following the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007 (see below). Luther Memorial also has many ministries to the Blacksburg community. I counted no fewer than seven community relief agencies. The congregation owns a private dwelling, the von Bora Haus, which is made available to the homeless as well as serving as a host for To Our House, an organization that arranges for overnight accommodations for homeless men during winter months. They also offer their building to be used by the Boy Scouts, an Alcoholics Anonymous group, and a mental health support group, as well as others. They have two worship services each Sunday: one at 8.30 and the other at 11.00.
Blacksburg is located in southwestern Virginia very near the border with West Virginia. It is named after Samuel Black, a wealthy landowner whose sons developed the original town site in 1797. Today, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (better known as Virginia Tech), one of the top engineering schools in the nation, dominates Blacksburg's economy. Virginia Tech was the location of a mass shooting in 2007 when 32 students and faculty lost their lives. The day after the shooting, Luther Memorial's pastor, William King, was asked to offer words from the Christian tradition to comfort a diverse community at
the Virginia Tech Convocation, which included speeches by
George W. Bush as well as Virginia Tech faculty members. Many were surprised that while the Muslim and Buddhist representatives used the convocation as an opportunity to spread messages particular to their faith traditions, King did not even mention Christ but only offered a generic message of hope. King later said that he felt it was important to provide pastoral care for the entire university community rather than make a
The Revd William King, pastor;
the Revd Joanna Stallings, associate pastor, who also preached.
What was the name of the service?Late Morning Service
How full was the building?
I counted about 50 in attendance, which included the pastors and choir. The sanctuary could hold about 200 so the sanctuary looked pretty empty. A handout we were given listed last week's attendance as 44 at the 8.30 service and 49 at the 11.00 service. Considering the fact that some 33,000 students attend Virginia Tech, it was somewhat surprising to find that only a handful of college students were in church this morning.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. Our wilderness wandering pre-service (see below) prevented us from being engaged at the start of the service, but afterwards that loss was more than made up for as a number of people came up to us and warmly welcomed us personally. We also had a good number of folks come up to us during the peace and greet us with a smile. The associate pastor greeted us without shaking our hands, as she didn't want to spread her cold a situation that she made light of but that made us feel all the more comfortable here. Overall, this was one of the more pleasant church experiences we have had in terms of congregational warmth and greeting.
Was your pew comfortable?
We sat on standard padded pews with kneelers. The padding looked relatively new and was comfortable. No complaints.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Unfortunately, we missed the pre-service atmosphere because we were confused as to how to get to the sanctuary. The church has two parking lots, one on the side of the building, the other in the back. I assumed (wrongly) that the side lot (about which I'll have more to say later) led to the entrance. Had I read their website's directions, I would not have led my wife and son on a venture wandering around the outside of the back of the building. I eventually saw an entrance to the fellowship hall and went in, where we found a woman who directed us to the sanctuary entrance. Some signage outside would have been most helpful. When we entered the sanctuary, the minister was going through pre-service announcements. The atmosphere was quiet and reverent.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
After the conclusion of the announcements, the minister declared: "God grants us entrance into the church through baptism." He then directed us to turn and look toward the baptismal font in the back of the sanctuary, where he led us in a prayer of confession.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymnals and pew Bibles were available in the racks on the back of the pews for our use. Most of the readings were, however, written out for us in a 23 page handout given to us as we entered the sanctuary, and most hymns had their lyrics printed in the handout.
What musical instruments were played?
A pipe organ was their instrument of choice.
Did anything distract you?
There were only three children in the sanctuary and two of them sat in the pew in front of us. They were not particularly young, but they were pretty loud in their chattering with one another. Their mom had brought a coloring/activity book with her to engage them during the service. However, while it kept them focused on something, it also provided a subject for discussion, which they engaged in heartily. The only other thing that was a bit of a distraction was someone's overuse of perfume. My wife has asthma and perfume is a trigger for her. I spent the first moments of the service feeling anxious that my wife would have to excuse herself. She did not get to that point, but she did have to take a few puffs from her inhaler.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
They followed the revised common lectionary, utilizing the semi-continuous first lesson and psalm. Their welcome pamphlet states that "Luther Memorial attempts to offer a worship experience that is both rooted in the best of Christian tradition and open to fresh music, language and style." The service this morning was very traditional. The songs were all hymns from their hymnbook. The congregation did not feel "stiff" but the singing was rather subdued.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Associate Pastor Joanna Stallings did a very good job despite her cold. Her message was clear and concise. My wife commented that she found her to be an excellent speaker to whom she could have listened all day.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
With the chaos of the US Presidential election behind us, there are many who are concerned with what lies ahead for our future. Today's texts assure us that God is present in times of wandering and uncertainty. We wait together, as God's people, holding onto his promises of protection and with the hope that, one day, the wolf will lie down with the lamb. The experience of Christ stands as an testimony to us that it is often in times of death that resurrection is just around the corner. Resurrection is not something that one experiences in isolation, but it comes only in the company of God's people.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
This was the first Lutheran service that I had ever attended. The readings and prayers were exactly what my soul needed this morning. The warmth that the church showed toward us was such an encouragement as well. After the service, I told a young man sitting next to me that I wasn't Lutheran but felt very inspired by the service. He replied, "Well, I will tell you that I am not Lutheran either. I am a Catholic but have chosen to worship here." I said that it gave me cause to consider, at once, both the diversity and unity of the Body of Christ. He simply replied, "God works in mysterious ways" and was off.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Let's talk about those parking lots, shall we? There is a dip at the transition from the road into the parking lot. I didn't see it, and it caused the front of our car to scrape on the ground. Then, the lack of signs to direct us from our newly scratched car to the sanctuary was a bit of a miss. Finally, it would be a stretch to say that the perfume encounter came from "the other place." After all, it didn't smell like sulphur, so we can only be so tough on it.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We are so appreciative that we didn't have an opportunity to look lost. Immediately after the service, we were greeted by a number of people and our various conversations went on for quite a while. One dear woman came up to us and gave us each a clip that you use to close up bags of snacks. The clip had the name of the church on it and attached to it was a note that said, "Thank you for worshiping with us at Luther Memorial ... Remember that we would be delighted to have you join us again at anytime." Attached to this was another flier that explained their philosophy of ministry. Love it!
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No refreshments were offered after service, but there was a fellowship lunch that was taking place for the college students, to which all were welcome and to which we were personally invited.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I'm going to give it a qualified "8." I say this because if I were to judge it based solely upon the service elements and our experience among the people, then they would receive an enthusiastic thumbs up and we would visit them again. That being said, since we are from another tradition, there are doctrinal considerations that would have to be overcome in order for us to make this our church home.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. Very much so.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The warmth of the congregation as well as how pleasantly surprised we were by the service over all.