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961: Messiah United Methodist, Taneytown, Maryland, USA
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Messiah United Methodist, Taneytown, Maryland, USA
Mystery Worshipper: MessyChristina.
The church: Messiah United Methodist, Taneytown, Maryland, USA.
Denomination: United Methodist Church.
The building: Messiah's building seems comfortable, nestled closely among the homes in a modest residential neighborhood. No one would describe the renovated brick building as pretentious or grand, but maybe pleasant and serviceable.
The church: The congregation seemed ethnically fairly homogeneous, reflecting the small-town, rural area where it is located.
The neighbourhood: I visited Messiah on the Sunday immediately following the US presidential election. I am not sure if it was in honor of the election, the Veterans Day holiday, the town's 250th birthday, or just a high general level of patriotism, but many of the homes around the church were flying the US flag. One home a few doors down was bedecked with seven flags, as well as a sign with Old Glory and the words "God Bless America". The town's 250th birthday banners, the flags and the smattering of Bush/Cheney signs, gave me a sense of this as a conservative heartland community. The website for Messiah notes that it is not far from the birthplace of Methodism in America.
The cast: The service was led the church's pastor, the Rev. Dr Arthur Dicken Thomas, Jr. ("Pastor Art") .
What was the name of the service?
Communion Service on All Saints' Sunday, with Veterans Day observance.

How full was the building?
The modest church was about half full – about 100 in attendance.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was wished a good morning as I was handed a bulletin.

Was your pew comfortable?
The wooden pews had no cushions but were nevertheless comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
All the announcements were made at the beginning of the service. On the one hand, this means that the distraction of people coming in late takes place during the discussion of the puppet ministry, scholarship fund, minutes of the charge conference, poinsettia orders, and youth bike trip, rather than during music, prayer or sermon. On the other hand, those of us on time for the service had to sit through what the pastor guessed was a record-breaking number of announcements before the main event began.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, everyone. We welcome you to our service."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A very detailed program/order of service and the wonderful United Methodist Hymnal.

What musical instruments were played?
Piano and console organ.

Did anything distract you?
Two things were disconcerting if not distracting. The first was that either because of the acoustics in the church or the extreme modesty of the congregation, I couldn't hear anyone singing the hymns – even though the hymns of the day were traditional favorites like For all the Saints. I saw lips moving but no sounds coming out. This in a Methodist church, where the hymnal still includes Wesley's instructions for hymn-singing! The other distraction, especially toward the end of the service, was parents turning toward the back of the room and gesturing to their children. A former choir loft has been converted into a children's rumpus room with a long curtained window that allows curious children to watch their parents during the service below. This is a nice idea in theory, but the soundproofing was not perfect, and several little ones were successful in getting their parents' (and my) attention.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Stiffly happy? Middle-of-the-road? This was a remarkably upbeat service for All Saints day, but it did not venture more than a toenail into contemporary liturgy or music. No one took Pastor Art up on his altar call to anyone with special concerns. At one point the bell was tolled for each church member who had died the previous year.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
21 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – He told a good joke that I'd never heard before and that everyone laughed at.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
What is heaven like? Pastor Art preached on Luke 20 (the Sadducees quizzing Jesus with the riddle about the afterlife for a widow of seven different husbands). Jesus's response, as well as the near-death experience of a relative, suggested to Pastor Art that heaven would be far more wonderful than we can imagine – far more wonderful than can be conveyed through any earthly comparison such as marriage, or even the paradise that Hollywood might invent. We will love one another even more intensely, even more joyfully, in the life of the resurrection.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
After the service I was given a big hug by a kind lady. "We're a hugging church," she said. I later learned that she thought I had come to honor the memory of one of the congregation's deceased. I hope she wasn't too disappointed to learn that it was transporting my son to a local paintball event that had brought me to Messiah.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The most uncomfortable moment for me was when I put myself in place of someone who might have lost a loved one recently. The very upbeat sermon and rather jolly hymn, When we all get to Heaven (What a day of rejoicing that will be!), would not have given much comfort to fresh grief.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I was greeted warmly by several ladies after the service, all of whom urged me to return to Messiah.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was not a drop to drink nor bite to eat after the service.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I come from a large, predominantly liberal urban congregation and went to Messiah – George Bush country – in part to learn how these other folk could be so different. Instead, I found some warm hearts and sensible preaching that were not so different after all.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
On the whole, yes.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
A good sermon, a warm hug, the quiet dignity of the bell tolling, and the very upbeat service for All Saints' Sunday.
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