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of the Palms, Sarasota, Florida, USA
of the Palms, Sarasota, Florida, USA.
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.
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.
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 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
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
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
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?
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
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
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
How would you describe the after-service
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
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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