Mystery Worshipper: Hungry Hopper
Church: Water of Life
Location: Fontana, California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 26 August 2018, 11:30am
A humongous campus with an older church section now being used for additional space, and a newer, very spacious worship center nearby, with everything looking something like a giant industrial complex refurbished for religious services. The interior is very plain, with a stage, comfortable individual chairs, and only one Christian symbol (a lighted cross) attached to the ceiling.
They have four locations in the area. There is a large number of ministries well described on their website. I’ll just mention the Well of Healing, a fully licensed medical care facility providing services to the homeless, uninsured, and underinsured. They have services in Chinese and Spanish each Sunday as well as English services on Saturday evening and Sunday morning.
Fontana, in San Bernardino County about a two hour drive east of Los Angeles, is a major transportation hub, with Interstate 10, Interstate 15 and State Route 210 all passing through. The Santa Ana winds ensure that the climate remains hot most of the year, but especially in summer. The church is located in a newer, clean community. It has the feeling of a cultivated, well populated desert.
The service began with a worship team of about a dozen, led by a female vocalist who also prayed between songs. There was another woman who led the transition. Then the male lead pastor read the scripture and preached to the end.
What was the name of the service?Second Sunday Service.
How full was the building?
Packed. Ushers were employed to help people find seats. There may have been a thousand people or more. It is very mixed with regard to age, and the racial mix was predominantly white and Hispanic with fewer representatives of other groups.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
The place had police watching traffic. A small motorized cart picked us up from the parking lot and took us to the entrance. All the while the driver shared information about the church and suggested what we should do after. He shook my hand. There were greeters at the entrance to the sanctuary who smiled, welcomed us, and handed us bulletins.
Was your pew comfortable?
Seats were movable, plush, very comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People were just pouring in from everywhere. The chatter was high until the music began.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Well, hello everyone!’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
We were encouraged to look up the text on our smartphones or our Bibles. Verses were briefly shown on screen for some of the sermon; the rest was just the pastor reading from his own translation.
What musical instruments were played?
Keyboard, four guitars (perhaps one was a bass), drum. There were five additional people doing vocals only (although one appeared to play a harmonica at one time).
Did anything distract you?
Briefly. The sanctuary is very dark except for the stage light, so it is difficult to find your way around until your eyes adjust. Then I noticed the very plainness of the decor, but figured nobody cares; congregants obviously don't come for aesthetics.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship band was especially music forward, very professional sounding, and dramatically presented. The song lyrics were repetitive and not especially memorable, more like disparate prose well sung by the group. It seemed more like a performance than a participatory thing except during some of the familiar choruses when you could actually hear the congregation reach the volume. The songs were so unfamiliar that I thought they were probably created in-house and known only to regular attendees.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 — The pastor seems very personable. He preached essentially without notes but followed an outline on which we were encouraged to fill in the blanks. He has an engaging personality, makes interesting connections, and obviously makes an impression that has filled the church to capacity.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Life's battles. His text was Nehemiah 4. He used Nehemiah's rebuilding of Jerusalem's walls with tools in one hand and weapons in the other as an example of how we ourselves may serve God, endure scorn and oppression, and yet continue to trust God and press on.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The best part was the message. The congregation were very friendly, but the preacher did a good enough job to make me want to come back.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I would not say there was an ‘other place’ part unless mere disinterest or minor annoyances count. While the music was professional sounding, I didn't find myself engaged or singing much because it was just too obscure and uninteresting to me lyrically. So we stood, read the words, and wondered when it would end. I also didn't care much for the greet time, as that was just a brief time of shaking everyone's hands within a certain proximity and not getting to know any of them. Finally, I do think they should have a gifted reader for the scripture portions, as the preacher’s reading of the text was far less engaging than his natural, conversing style of communication.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Just as there were greeters when we entered, there were smiling faces blessing us on our way out. Nobody grabbed us or anything, but upon exiting we were confronted by several kiosks of groups and church information and whatever else.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
We didn't see after-service coffee, but when we almost reached the property perimeter we noted some sort of drink booth with multicolored bottles.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 — I would suggest arriving early because parking is at a premium and the only spots will be in the further lots. You have to find a space and then wait for a tram to depart with you to the church entrance.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yeah, sort of. It almost didn't seem like 'church' but more of a preliminary concert followed by a spiritual TED-Talk (a set of online videos on education, business, science, tech and creativity). I would not be ashamed about the message, or the service in general, but I would be a little embarrassed about the songs being so unpoetic. Nevertheless, I would personally feel glad to be a Christian as the message was spiritually encouraging and challenging, and the congregation were united and engaged the whole time.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The pastor’s great way of preaching and how it will influence me in my own public speaking.