Mystery Worshipper: The Episcopalian Hopper
Location: Glendale, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 20 July 2008, 6:00pm
The building was begun in 1997 and completed in 2002; the congregation had previously met in a strip mall. It is one of a conglomeration of buildings, all of a sleek, modern design with clean silver lines and beige accents. Almost your typical megachurch type building. The grounds are meticulously kept yet austere – lots of grass and neatly trimmed bushes, and some sandy areas in the style known hereabouts as desert landscaping. Upon entering, one immediately encounters a coffee shop and bookstore, and beyond that an information kiosk in chique modern European style. Also, there are lots of couches and casual seating in the lobby area. Two doors open into the sanctuary, which is an austere assembly of pine, steel and frosted glass.
They claim a membership of 3,000 – more a large suburban evangelical congregation than a meachurch – and appear to be a very tight-knit community despite their size. There are two services each Saturday afternoon, with communion celebrated at the second service. There are also two services each Sunday morning, with an evening service the third Sunday of each month. They sponsor a number of ministries, including formation programs for all age groups from pre-kindergarten through adult and senior, prayer and healing ministries, and meals for the homeless.
Glendale was once a city some distance to the west of Phoenix, but as the area grew, Phoenix expanded to engulf most of the smaller cities in the region. Glendale's downtown still retains a small-town feel, but the rest of the city smacks of typical suburbia. The University of Phoenix Stadium, known affectionately as the "mother ship" due to its round, flat appearance, is a recent addition. Vineyard Church is located on Peoria Avenue, a major east-west thoroughfare joining Phoenix, Glendale, and the city of Peoria further to the west. This particular stretch of the avenue is strongly residential, with families as well as senior citizens in abundance.
Keith Shepherd, a member of the worship arts team, led the service.
What was the name of the service?Illuminate: Young Adult Gathering.
How full was the building?
Rather full, roughly 250 to 350 young adults seated on the floor. The age span for the service I attended was about 16 to 39, but this was specifically a young adult service. I was told that at a typical service the attendees range from babes in arms to octogenarians in walkers.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No one was stationed at the door, but as I entered, two folks greeted me and asked me if it was my first time, and if I had any questions.
Was your pew comfortable?
The chairs had all been pushed off to the side, and plush cushions were placed randomly on the floor. It was quite comfy for me.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet, meditative, in a darkened sanctuary lit by candles. A beautiful, haunting chant-like melody was softly playing. Some folks were chatting quietly, others were just sitting in quiet prayer.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome to Illuminate!"
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. Lyrics were projected onto two big monitors.
What musical instruments were played?
Two guitars and an African drum.
Did anything distract you?
In addition to the two monitors, there was a screen in the middle onto which random yet relevant images were projected, some accompanied by scriptural references.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Everything was geared perfectly for quiet, meditative attention. The songs were slow and intimate, interspersed with quiet times for contemplation and short sermonettes by the worship leader. At the end, before the final worship song ("Surrender," from the Vineyard album Come Worship), the leader invited us to engage in self examination.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
All put together, the sermonettes came to about 11 minutes.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Overall the sermonettes were well planned and delivered meaningful messages, but the leader's attitude was a bit jocular and at times almost patronizing. And it took him a long time to get to his point.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermonettes were about different postures of worship and how we must eliminate the distinctions between our spiritual life and physical life and worship God all the time.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The meditative atmosphere, the candlelight, the great worship music, and to see other people also engrossed in the heartfelt worship of God.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The sermonettes. I generally don't like evangelical style sermons because they tend to go around and around without making a point. The preacher's attitude of "I know more than you do" was also grating.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I got up and looked around and tried to look like I was lost. One of the people who greeted me before the service introduced herself and also introduced me to some other folks. They expressed a desire for me to hook in to one of their young adult groups and participate, even if just to try it out. They seemed very welcoming and very inclusive.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was no after service coffee; the coffee shop had already closed.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I am an Episcopalian who has a taste for contemporary worship, but I don't think I would be able to survive in a community that didn't have the mass. Also, I tend not to put up well with sermons that don't really go anyhere fast.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Despite the "other place" bits, it was overall a very positive experience. It made me very glad to be a Christian.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The final worship song, "Surrender."