St Paul Lutheran, Phoenix, Arizona, USA


Info and corrections →

Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Paul Lutheran, Phoenix
Location: Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 8 October 2023, 9:30am

The building

The congregation was formed in 1959 and met at first in a private home. Their present building dates from 1960 and is a rather pleasant looking symmetrical structure in brick and concrete, out of which rises a slender pyramid topped by a cross. The interior continues the brick and concrete theme, with the altar in front of a brown brick wall on which hangs a large wooden cross. Baptismal font and paschal candle stand in front of the altar. Pulpit is to the left; lectern to the right. Credence table is also to the left. There was a single vase of flowers at the center of the altar. Large, colorful windows – I wouldn’t exactly call them stained glass – provide ample illumination.

The church

They say on their website that they are ‘a fellowship of believers devoted to ordered and reverent worship.’ I had attended remotely via YouTube three years ago, during the height of the pandemic, and was very much impressed by what is often described as ‘their approach to the altar.’ I was looking forward to today’s in-person visit – and in fact was treated to the surprise of my life (read on!). They have Bible study twice each week: pastor’s Bible study and Lutheran Women’s Missionary League Bible study (I had to Google what the abbreviation LWML meant). In addition to Sunday worship service with communion, they have matins every Saturday morning. I could not get a feel for what other activities and outreaches they might have – their website is silent in this regard and no mention of anything was made.

The neighborhood

They are located on Indian School Road, a major east-west thoroughfare, just west of 63rd Avenue in Phoenix’s Maryvale neighborhood. The highly regarded Lexington School for Autism is next door. Across the street is a golf course. Not far away is a gin joint with the wonderful name of the Purple Turtle, where Miss Amanda has been known to quaff a wee dram or two now and then. (Truth be told, though, I haven’t visited since the pandemic struck.)

The cast

The pastor, assisted by an acolyte.

What was the name of the service?

Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity: Worship Service with Communion.

How full was the building?

There was room for about 200 and I counted about 50 – a mixed crowd of all ages, equally split between men and women.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

In the narthex a few people said, ‘Hello, welcome.’ After I sat down, the pastor came up to me, introduced himself, and asked how I had heard about the church. I told him I had attended via YouTube a while back. And now for the surprise – something that just about knocked me out. ‘You’re not Amanda B. Reckondwyth, are you?’ the pastor asked. Discovered! He said he had read my previous report and he thanked me for the positive remarks I had made. We chatted a bit about other reports I had filed – which apparently he had also read. But then I told him I was not LCMS and inquired if I would be welcome at communion. He asked if I had a regular church at present (I don’t) and about my church upbringing. ‘I would prefer that you not take communion,’ he said, adding that there were several major differences between the beliefs of Missouri Synod Lutherans, other Lutherans, the Episcopal Church, and other Christian bodies.

Was your pew comfortable?

A padded pew – yes, it was comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

People entered quietly. The organist played a soft medley of the hymns that we would be singing.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

Pastor and acolyte processed in behind the cross as we sang, ‘Blessed Jesus, At Your Word’ to the tune of Liebster Jesu Wir Sind Hier. After the processional hymn: ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A very thorough service leaflet was available for the taking. We used the Lutheran Service Book for the hymns.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, an electronic instrument up in the choir loft. There was no choir, though. A console piano to the left front of the sanctuary remained silent.

Did anything distract you?

There was one family with several small children who fussed and fidgeted, but I was glad to see families in church.

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

Well – it started out stiff upper lip indeed: sober, straightforward, more or less in the format we are accustomed to in the West, using old-style language (lots of ‘thees’ and ‘thous’) and with ceremony that would make most Anglo-Catholics seethe with envy. The pastor wore full eucharistic vestiture; the acolyte cassock and surplice and, I was happy to note, black shoes. And I was pleased to see that he lit the candles in proper order, which you almost never see anymore: epistle side first, starting with the candle closest to the center; then gospel side, again with the candle closest to the center going first. Quite a bit of the service was chanted. The pastor handled all the readings himself – there was no lector. Lots of old standby traditional hymns, well played and well sung. In the Nicene Creed, the pastor genuflected at the et incarnatus est. At the consecration, the elements were elevated but there were no bells. But then – things got a bit strange. See below.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

20 minutes.

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

6 — The pastor spoke clearly if a bit rapidly. I thought his sermon was rather scholarly, and I wondered if most of the congregation followed his train of thought. Speaking for myself, I had to pay close attention.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The pastor preached primarily on the Gospel reading, Matthew 22:34-46 (Jesus answers the Pharisees’ question and then stumps them with one of his own). God promised Adam and Eve that he would be their God. He is our God too, and Jesus is the fulfillment of God. Jesus was not merely a descendant of David – he was and is God! We meet God through Jesus, and that is how we are saved. The Incarnation is the central tenet of our theology, and there is no theology without Jesus. Jesus answered the Pharisees’ question about the greatest commandment correctly, but knowing the Law alone is misleading. He went on to ask them a question of his own, expecting them to acknowledge that David’s Son was also David’s Lord. But they did not understand this, and did not accept it. Jesus did not put on manhood for 33 years and then discard it – he is always man and he is always God. Christians can never get enough of Jesus – he is what makes us all believers.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The fine attention to liturgical detail, the chanting, and the well-chosen hymns were all heavenly.

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

But… although the pastor telling me that he would prefer I didn’t take communion put me off a bit, I shunted it aside. I know, after all, that Missouri Synod Lutherans practice closed communion. But after the collection was taken up, something strange happened that I have never seen before in any church. A group of women got up, walked up to the baptismal font, walked in a circle around it, and then returned to their seats. I couldn’t imagine what this might mean. I’ve Googled it but have come up with no results. Perhaps someone well versed in Lutheran tradition can explain it. As for me… you will think it strange, but at that moment it was as if a veil had descended between me and the service. The pastor’s admonition about communion came dashing to the forefront of my mind. I suddenly felt out of place, as if I didn’t belong here. In fact, I left as communion was being distributed.

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

As I said, I didn’t stay.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I didn’t see any evidence of it having been set out, but I wasn’t staying anyway. Being I was in the Maryvale neighborhood, I headed over to my favorite Chinese buffet for lunch.

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

5 — Oh, golly, this is a tough one. Good music, careful attention to liturgy, and good preaching are what I look for in a service, and I found them here. But I cannot subscribe to all the tenets of Missouri Synod Lutheranism, and so there was no question in my mind but that I was out of my element. I may go back for matins some Saturday, but I can’t see myself attending another communion service here, as well done as it was.

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

On balance, yes.

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

The pastor remembering my report from three years ago and knowing who I was – and the ladies encircling the baptismal font.

Our Mystery Worshippers are volunteers who warm church pews for us around the world. If you’d like to become a Mystery Worshipper, start here.

Find out how to reproduce this report in your church magazine or website.

Comments and corrections

To comment, please scroll to the end of this report and add your thoughts there. To send us factual corrections, please contact us. We also discuss reports on our Ecclesiantics bulletin board.

© Ship of Fools