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1871: Unity Christ Center, Eau Claire, Wisconsin, USA
Unity Christ Center, Eau Claire, Wisconsin, USA
Mystery Worshipper: LeftyForJesus.
The church: Unity Christ Center, Eau Claire, Wisconsin, USA.
Denomination: Unity Churches.
The building: Not particularly "churchy" looking from the outside. A newish looking building, single-story with metal roof. It is set on a wooded lot, which was even more serene looking with the fresh coat of snow. Inside is a plain room with space for about 125 chairs, which can be rearranged as the occasion requires. In one wall is an abstract stained glass window depicting the four seasons. In the center of the window is a random placement of stones in which many see a depiction of the Nativity.
The church: They sponsor a Sunday school, book group, and a variety of spiritual and social workshops, including a Friday evening film series.
The neighborhood: Eau Claire, so named by French explorers who marveled at the clarity of the water in the river that runs through town, is a small city in west-central Wisconsin that enjoys a diverse and expanding economic base in manufacturing, health care, information technologies, and retail trade. The church is located in a residential area where most of the yards are large and wooded. It is a very quiet neighborhood – I couldn't hear any street noise at all from the building.
The cast: "Matt," who may have been Matthew Anderson, a member of the board of trustees, was the worship coordinator. Shari Falter, volunteer coordinator, was the speaker.
The date & time: Sunday, November 29, 2009, 10.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Sunday Service.

How full was the building?
Not bulging at the seams, but comfortably full. It appeared to be at least 75 per cent full if not more. It filled up surprisingly fast in the last minute or so before the service started.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
We were warmly and enthusiastically welcomed when we walked into the sanctuary, which after the service also served as the fellowship area. The greeters/ushers introduced themselves, handed us the hymn book, asked us to sign the guest book, gave us information about the church, and offered us coffee or tea.

Was your pew comfortable?
Rather than pews, there were nicely padded purple chairs that were spaced out so that you weren't banging into the row ahead of you. Comfortable setting.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The rest of the congregation weren't quite as lively as the greeters, but there were quiet conversations going on, and others did introduce themselves as they passed by.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, everybody."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Wings of Song hymnal.

What musical instruments were played?
Electric piano (synthesizer), guitar, chimes, bongo drums. At the end of the service there were some native American hand drums that were used to lead people out to the "burning bowl" ceremony (see below).

Did anything distract you?
One of the biggest distractions was the woman behind us who kind of reminded me of the old guys on the balcony on the Muppet Show – she felt compelled to add her commentary at various times. The most jarring one to me was when their very small (maybe a half dozen people) choir got up to sing a seasonal song (it is the first Sunday in Advent after all). The woman actually muttered, "More Christmas crap!" For a congregation that seems to pride itself on upholding the value of others, I found that extraordinarily rude and distracting.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was very loose, almost new-age feeling. I think that made the more traditional elements even more startling. For example, the hymns were all quite traditional "old school" Advent tunes. The most peppy hymn was probably "Go Tell It On The Mountain." But the whole thing impressed me as being on the outer edge of Christianity. There were some elements from other faith beliefs. Crystals were mentioned at one point, for example, and there seemed to be a lot of native American elements.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
17 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
3 – I'm hoping Shari Falter doesn't speak for a living. She had some interesting points, but frequently her analogies were too esoteric to follow. She kept referring back to a Nordic folk tale about a worm that is eating its tail ... after the service I asked my companion if he knew what that was about and it was lost on him, too. Also, she smacked herself on the head when she messed up a line from a poem she read. That seemed really off-putting.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
When seeking God, look within your own heart first. The kingdom of heaven is within you.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Being in a wooded area, it was nice to have clear glass windows to enjoy the view of creation. It was obvious that the members of the congregation really got something from their faith community. The congregation seemed to support each other. For instance, during the announcements, one member relayed some issues another member was having regarding transportation (the member seems to be confined to a wheelchair). A long story, but the upshot is that I felt so moved by the story that I made a donation on her behalf and placed it in the offering later in the service.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Well, the Muppet Show lady behind us was a definite downer. There were also times when, despite their efforts to be inclusive, they came up short. There were lots of moments where there were little songs they sang as transitional interludes that were not projected on the screen nor printed in the bulletin. One of the more awkward moments was when we were supposed to sing a little ditty to lead the children off to Sunday school. There were two problems with this: (1) The words weren't obvious to newcomers, and (2) there were no children to usher to Sunday school, and yet they sang the song. Weird.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The worship concluded with a hand-holding sing-along. I'm not a big one on holding hands anyway, but to have to sing along (and sway back and forth with the music) was hard to take. Because the sanctuary doubled as the fellowship hall, they just opened the window from the kitchen area and snacks were served. About a half dozen folks introduced themselves to me after the service.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Nice selection of tea. I didn't have the coffee, but my companion said it was weak. There were all sorts of homemade and store-bought treats available. A group of individuals processed outdoors for a "burning bowl" ceremony. My understanding is that they collect written prayer requests and hold them for a month. Then they take the prayers outdoors and burn them to "release" them (to the heavens, I assume).

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 – As I've said before, for the regular members, you could tell they were genuinely glad to be a member of the church. They were very supportive of each other and their individual beliefs. But some of the tie-in behind the spoken words and the actions were a little fuzzy. Still, those who participated in the ceremony were very earnest.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
The concept of embracing other faith traditions does make me glad to know Christianity can be more open to other faith traditions, but the service itself seemed a little "off" – I think a lot of that had to do with the speaker. I'd be interested in hearing their minister preach to see if things went more coherently together. I liked the symbolism of the burning bowl. The earnestness of the congregation and their attempt at being open and inclusive (save the grumpy lady) were touching, even if it often wasn't very clear what they were doing or what it was supposed to mean.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The burning bowl ceremony.
 
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