From the road, a low, flat, oblong building that looks more like a modern corporate headquarters than anything else. The Aurora Day School, a private school for (quoting from their website) ‘students in grades K through 12 with exceptional cognitive, academic or behavior needs,’ occupies the same building. Inside, one enters a lobby with a café off to the left and the worship area behind that. The worship area is a triangular room with beige walls, brown/grey carpeting, and a stage bathed in blue light. Musical instruments adorned the stage, but I spotted no symbols of Christianity such as a cross.
They were founded in 1990 (quoting from their website) ‘for those who had never been to church or had become disillusioned and given up on God.’ They believe that ‘the local church should be the most compelling reason for a person to believe that there is a God … People should look at the church and be drawn in by their love for one another.’ They say they have ‘something for everyone,’ but looking at their rather fundamentalist statement of belief as given on their website, I had the opinion that ‘everyone’ and ‘love for one another’ does not include those who cannot subscribe to beliefs such as marriage having ‘only one meaning: the uniting of one man and one woman.’ Among their many ministries described on their website is a music ministry, a program of affordable private lessons and studio sessions that are ‘all about bringing music back into the day-to-day’ by developing ‘well-rounded musicians who have a passion for what they do.’ There are also ministries for children, youth, men, women and seniors. They have a Saturday evening service followed by a family dinner, plus two Sunday morning services.
Peoria is a western suburb of Phoenix. The church is located on Thunderbird Road just east of the ring road known as the Loop 101. The area is dominated by strip malls and middle class housing – not particularly interesting, I didn’t think. There is a Starbucks directly across the street.
Opening remarks, prayer and announcements were given by a gentleman identified as the connections pastor. The sermon was preached by the co-lead pastor. Both were dressed in t-shirt, jeans and sneakers.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Morning Gathering.
How full was the building?
It was hard to estimate the capacity given the room’s triangular shape, but it was about seven-eighths full. A young to middle-aged crowd for the most part.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. But there was a ‘connections booth’ in the lobby, and I’m sure that if I had approached it I would have been welcomed as a newcomer and given a gift packet.
Was your pew comfortable?
Conference room-style chairs. A little hard, but basically comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
As I pulled into the parking lot, I noted a row of covered parking (very welcome under the hot Arizona summer sun). Just as I was asking myself what I thought my chances were of finding a spot there, I noticed signs that read ‘Reserved parking. Violators will be towed.’ God’s chosen few, I guess. After parking out in the sun, I approached what seemed to be the main entrance, but it was marked Youth entrance. Further down from that was the Kids’ entrance. Finally I spotted a sign that read ‘New here? Start here.’ Not seeing an adults’ entrance, I made for the ‘new’ entrance, where a lady said 'Good morning' as she held the door for me. I visited the coffee bar (see below) and then found a seat in the worship area, where people were greeting one another as best they could over the loud rock music that was playing over the PA system. I got my earplugs out.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘I want you to know that whatever you’re going through, God is with you.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
What musical instruments were played?
Keyboard, three electric guitars, drums, vocalist.
Did anything distract you?
It never fails to amaze me that so many men have forgotten (for surely they were taught) that gentlemen remove their hats indoors, especially in church. OK, I know they’re baseball caps and not fedoras, but they’re hats nevertheless.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Their website describes their worship as ‘incredible.’ I found it incredibly loud. Loud rock music (thankfully only 15 minutes’ worth) followed by loud announcements, loud videos, and a very loud sermon. Lots of swinging and swaying and clapping and hand-waving. We were asked to ‘stand up and greet someone you’ve never met,’ which thankfully did not turn into a free-for-all. Communion was ministered with the co-lead pastor ‘sort of’ pronouncing the words of institution – I say ‘sort of’ because he said, ‘The ushers will pass out communion bread and juice. You may eat it and drink it whenever you want, but as you do, remember that Jesus said that the bread was his body, and the juice his blood.’ Not exactly an epiclesis and a consecration, but ‘sort of’ close, I guess.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
0 Sorry, I have to give the co-lead pastor a goose-egg. He spoke very rapidly and very, very loud. I had to leave my earplugs in, and even so I found his voice grating and irritating. I had a very hard time following his train of thought. The people seemed to be hanging on his every word, however, with laughter, applause, and lots of ‘Amens.’
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
His theme was ‘Love is currency’ and his principal text seemed to be 2 Peter 1:5-7 (add several virtues to your faith, culminating in love). He began with a series of riddles, the relevancy of which I didn’t understand: ‘How important does a person have to be to be assassinated rather than murdered?’ ‘If olive oil comes from olives, where does baby oil come from?’ ‘If con is the opposite of pro, is Congress the opposite of progress?’ (I liked that one – how true, how true!) Jesus is known by how much his followers love one another. Love is their currency. The deepest wounds inflicted on us are often inflicted by those who call us brother – how mean we can be to one another sometimes! We are mean when we confuse our personal preferences and opinions with moral truth. Let’s get better at loving one another.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
None of it, I’m afraid.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
How ear-splittingly loud everything was.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We were dismissed with the words ‘Have a great week and love Jesus.’ I didn’t hang around – I couldn’t get out of there fast enough!
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
On my way out I noticed that the coffee bar had been stripped clean, so I was glad (sort of) to have had coffee beforehand. The coffee was dispensed from a machine with seven spouts: three for decaf, three for regular coffee, one for hot water. The decaf and regular spouts were labeled Strong, Normal and Mild. I like my coffee strong, so I helped myself from the Strong spout. The ensuing beverage tasted like machine generated coffee-flavored substance. I had to dump most of it out. There were cookies, however (delicious), and chips.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
0 I can’t imagine anything that would draw me back. ‘Something for everyone?’ Everyone, that is, except those whom God created in his image to be attracted to persons of the same sex, and who enjoy worshipping at sensible volume levels.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
How loud it all was.