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1548: Church of the Palms, Sarasota, Florida, USA
Church of the Palms, Sarasota, Florida
Mystery Worshipper: Mary Mangolane.
The church: Church of the Palms, Sarasota, Florida, USA.
Denomination: Presbyterian Church (USA), Peace River Presbytery.
The building: The church grounds comprise a large campus with many different buildings. In the middle of the campus are a carillon tower, a giant oak tree and a memorial garden. The service I attended was in the Campus Center, a large gym-like room full of folding tables and chairs with a big stage at the front.
The church: They claim 2,500 members, making this the largest church in the Peace River Presbytery. They sponsor numerous groups and ministries designed to meet individual needs and to build a vibrant community life. They place special emphasis on their music ministry, with five choirs and three instrumental groups providing music at both contemporary and traditional services.
The neighborhood: Sarasota sits on Florida's west coast on the Gulf of Mexico. The city owes much of its prosperity to John and Charles Ringling, the "Ringling Brothers" of circus fame, who settled in the area along with their families and invested a great deal of their wealth in land and civic enterprises. In 2006, Sarasota was awarded the dubious title of Meanest City in the Nation by the National Coalition for the Homeless after passing an ordinance banning persons from sleeping outdoors without permission. Church of the Palms' immediate neighborhood is mostly strip malls and palm trees, like the majority of the Sarasota area.
The cast: The Revd Fred Marsh, visitation pastor.
The date & time: October 7, 2007, 10.30am.

What was the name of the service?
The Garden, a contemporary worship service. The worship team adopted this rather unusual name for the service based on what they felt to be its nurturing qualities leading to spiritual growth.

How full was the building?
A majority of the seats were full. However, as the room was configured with chairs around tables, there were far fewer chairs than that size room would hold in a different configuration.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I drifted past the welcome kiosk/cart-with-umbrella on my way in, where a nice woman loaded me up with literature about the church and attempted to force me to wear a name tag so that I would stand out as a visitor. I politely refused. At the whirl-and-greet, a woman who had been standing near me told me I should sing on the music team. No one else spoke to me. They didn't come share my table with me either.

Was your pew comfortable?
It was a cushioned folding chair. Not heinous, but not great either. Each table seated from four to eight people.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
As I arrived, people were standing out in the courtyard mingling. As we went inside, people helped themselves to coffee and an assortment of muffins and cakes arrayed on an improbable-looking spiral tower at the entrance to the auditorium. Then one person from each party strove to be first to sit at an unoccupied table, followed by the rest of their party. As mentioned, I sat alone. There was lots of chatting within groups, but very little cross-table chat. Maybe they only mingle out of doors.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, good morning. It's a beautiful day."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
None.

What musical instruments were played?
Two guitars and singers. There was a drum set present, but we were told the drummer had called in sick.

Did anything distract you?
Although we had picked up refreshments before the service began, I thought it inappropriate to eat while the service was in progress. Thus, the delicious looking piece of lemon poppy seed bread sitting on my plate almost drove me to the brink! There was also a point early on in the service where, in honor of World Communion Sunday, a group of people in assorted ethnic costumes processed up to the front of the church and stood there holding hands and swaying slightly. It was very "It's a Small World." But it was quite distracting to note that they were, every single one of them, older WASPs, even the ones representing Egypt, Japan, Thailand and Guatemala. This really drove home the point that, while the global church may be diverse, Church of the Palms is entirely homogeneous. And I'll have more to say later on about some most distracting elements of the music.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was acoustic contemporary, very run of the mill. Songs included "I am a friend of God" and "Draw me close." Nothing especially up-tempo, and I don't think this congregation would have clapped even if the tempo had suggested it. They appeared to be dividing their energies fairly evenly between the service and the muffins.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
16 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 – Pastor Marsh spoke rather broadly, seemingly without making any specific points or drawing any specific conclusions.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
When Pastor Marsh was just starting his ministry many years ago, he asked his mentor for advice on preaching. His mentor said, "Talk about love, and talk about 15 minutes." And this is exactly what he did. The sermon was a broad survey of the topic of love.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
At the end, for the closing prayer, we were all asked to hold hands. This would normally make me extremely uncomfortable, but in this case it didn't bother me at all. Also, some of the artwork decorating the hall was quite nice, especially a recently dedicated painting of a tropical garden with a footpath and three crosses. This was quite heavenly.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The songs were pitched way too high for the girls on stage. They were supposed to be singing in unison, but as they were struggling to sing that high, one was a little flat and the other was a little sharp, creating an effect that would fit certain kinds of 20th-century avant garde music, but that was cringe-inducing in this setting. Not only were the girls struggling to hit the notes, but most of the congregation fared no better.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No one talked to me. I did a few laps around the oak tree, but no one sought me out. Perhaps if I had agreed to wear a name tag...

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was coffee, tea, and more muffins and cakes that had been available earlier. But most people didn't stick around after the service, presumably because they'd already eaten.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – I had visited this church once before but had arrived late – in fact, for the last 20 minutes of the service. On the basis of those final 20 minutes, I thought I might want to consider making this my regular church. However, now that I've experienced the full effect of the service, I feel quite differently. Between the painful music and the lackluster preaching, I don't think I'll be going back.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Moderately. I wouldn't invite non-Christian friends.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The parade of white people in ethnic costumes.
 
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