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552: First Presbyterian, Harrisonburg, Virginia, USA
Other reports | Comment on this report
Mystery Worshipper: Vacation Traveller.
The church: First Presbyterian, Harrisonburg, Virginia, USA.
Denomination: Presbyterian (USA).
The building: First Presbyterian is a beautiful stone church in traditional style.
The church: They brought new meaning to the stereotype about Presbyterians being "God's frozen chosen."
The neighbourhood: The church is located on the town square facing the county courthouse, in historic Harrisonburg, Virginia. There are some small shops and offices on the adjoining sides of the square.
The cast: The only identified person in the bulletin was the preacher, Rev. Thomas J. Holden III, who is one of the associate pastors of the church. After I arrived home I looked up the church website and found that he was assisted by the Rev. Rob McClelland, also an associate pastor. An unidentified elder led the prayer and the organist was Karen Holl.
What was the name of the service?
Celebration of Worship July 7, 2002. This was surely a misnomer, as there was no celebration to be had.

How full was the building?
As this was the first of two services on a holiday weekend I knew that the attendance would be low, but there were maybe 75-80 people in a building that could easily seat 600.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
An usher shook my hand and said "welcome to worship," as he handed me a bulletin. Several people sitting near me also said "hello" and "good morning". During the passing of the peace several others came over to welcome me. It was very polite, but it didn't seem too sincere; it felt more the obligation of being in a very genteel Southern town.

Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was not the hardest I've ever been in, but not the most comfortable, either. The pews are dark stained oak with cushions on the seats but not on the backs.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The church was pretty quiet, mainly because there were so few people present. Closer to the start of the service, when more people arrived, there was some quiet chatter, but nothing to obstruct me listening to the prelude.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome to First Presbyterian church." This was followed by some announcements and the reading of the names of those who were in the hospital this week.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
We sang hymns out of the new Presbyterian hymnal. The pew bibles were RSV, but the minister read from Eugene Peterson's paraphrase "The Message". Some people had their own bibles but, when he announced that he was going to read from this version, they never so much as cracked them open.

What musical instruments were played?
A pipe organ for the hymns and an upright piano for the solo.

Did anything distract you?
The church was putting on four performances of the musical "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" over the weekend. The pulpit had been removed, as well as the choir pews, and the whole front of the church was decorated to look like the Middle East. I was most distracted by the green metallic leaves on all the palm trees and a huge multi-colored backdrop that covered up the pipe facade on the organ. It looked like a cross between Hollywood and a disco.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship wasn't stiff upper lip like some high Episcopal churches; it was stiff and formal, as if sitting in a college lecture. I guess the best description would be "stoic".

Exactly how long was the sermon?
The sermon was 19 minutes long, but seemed much longer. I ended up staring at the stained glass windows and, eventually, counting the number of drawknobs on the organ console.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
3 The desert setting should have warned me as to the dryness that I was going to encounter. The minister seemed like a nice man, but his preaching style was definitely not my type.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Sermon title: "If you build how... they will come" The sermon was based on Eph. 4:1-7, 11-16 and I had a hard time following it. I made notes, but everything seemed disjointed. Loosely, the sermon topic was that we are all expected to work together with our different spiritual gifts to reach out to those who are not part of the fellowship of faith. He jumped around from God changing peoples hearts, to the church in Jerusalem and then to the church in Ephesus. Then he talked about God building on His promises. Maybe I would have paid closer attention if he was a little more animated in his delivery.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The beautiful building and stained glass.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The whole service. I hate to be so general, but I left wondering if this really counted as going to church. The hymn singing was dreadful, the sermon boring, and the stage looked like a desert with metallic palm trees.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I walked to the front of the church to listen to the organist finish the postlude. When she was done, there was no one left in the church except for a few ushers who were cleaning up for the following service.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I didn't stay around to look for any. It was announced in the bulletin that there was visitor information in the fellowship hall but no there was mention of coffee or tea.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 I have been to funeral services that were more energetic than this.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It actually made me feel embarrased to be a Christian. How can one have joy in your heart about being a Christian and not have some sort of enthusiasm? I don't mean you have to be happy-clappy, but just showing a smile when singing a hymn would have been an improvement. I would hate to be a member of this church when a non-Christian came to visit because the atmosphere gave no good reason to be a Christian.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Metallic palm trees instead of a pulpit.
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