They meet in a banquet room at JJ's Sports Cantina, a somewhat seedy restaurant and watering hole on the seedier side of Scottsdale. The small square room is wallpapered in a pattern of wires strung across telephone poles, with birds perching on the wires. I thought of Alfred Hitchcock's film The Birds. The floor is covered in faded green carpet tiles that could use a shampoo, or better still, a replacement. In front was a large wooden cross resting on its side, and a screen on which nothing was projected.
Big House is a church for motorcyclists. They say on their website that they are "a place where people come to believe, belong and become." They manage a food bank for the needy and are very much into children's programs. They are affiliated with Set Free Soldiers Arizona, who describe themselves as "a motorcycle club that rides for Jesus Christ."
Scottsdale is an affluent suburb to the east of Phoenix, but every affluent suburb has its seedy side, and this is Scottsdale's. The restaurant is located on Scottsdale Road just north of the expressway known as the Loop 202. Strip malls, car dealers and budget-priced motels abound.
Jeff Allaway, pastor.
What was the name of the service?"Nail It", described as "a high octane Sunday morning experience."
How full was the building?
The room was full, mostly young couples with children. I counted about 75 chairs, and several chairs had been set up on the patio outside the doors. Some people who couldn't find seats inside sat on these; others stood. Several men wore leather vests with the colors of Set Free Soldiers Arizona.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. I was completely ignored.
Was your pew comfortable?
No. There was a mixture of upholstered restaurant chairs, metal folding chairs and bar stools, all of which were uncomfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A young boy was busy setting up the projector and screen, which were never used, and sound equipment. A few people who were clearly regulars visited among themselves - no, "visited" is not the right word; "engaged in mindless chatter" would be better. As others came in, they tended to find seats quietly with a minimum of visiting. As the room became full, there was quite a bit of shuffling around as people struggled to find empty seats. A guitar player and vocalist performed some numbers.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Talkin' 'bout the love of Jesus today!" This by the pastor.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
What musical instruments were played?
Electric guitar to accompany a young female vocalist. The music was sort of hard, jazzy, bluesy, the kind of music that people who have led rough lives might sing. It was rather good, actually, although I had a hard time connecting the songs I recognized ("Baby, You're No Good" and "Killing Me Softly") to church.
Did anything distract you?
The guitarist reminded me of the director of the choral group I belong to. We call him Doc as he holds a doctor of music degree. Imagine my surprise when, after making several announcements, the pastor said, "Come back up here, Doc." (It wasn't our director, though.)
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Happy-clappy, what I've come to expect from this worship style. It opened with the obligatory rock concert, after which the pastor asked several "review questions" such as "What did I talk about last week?" and "How can one be born again?" When people answered correctly, the pastor gave them a small reward such as a Big House cap, a DVD, or a devotional pamphlet. Then came several announcements, followed by more music, and then the sermon.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Pastor Jeff spoke in a friendly, relatively chatty style, peppered with lots of illustrations. At one point he joked, "Today I'm going to talk about commitment. People who hear my sermons say I should be committed!"
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
One of the songs immediately preceding the sermon was a bluesy rendering of "Amazing Grace." Pastor Jeff said that the lyrics described his life to a T - he had been lost and then found. God's amazing grace had changed his life. From this he smoothly segued into his texts for the day: Galatians 4:19 ("I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you"); Ephesians 6:14-15 ("Speaking the truth in love, we will grow"); and Psalm 92:12 ("The righteous will flourish like a palm tree"). Our goal should be to see Christ fully developed in our lives. We must grow up not only knowing the truth, but proclaiming it. Yes, we will stumble, but we mustn't let that turn us from God's plan for us. Stumbling is a good way to learn how to walk. We should ask God for wisdom.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The bluesy, heartfelt rendering of "Amazing Grace" was deeply moving.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Toward the end of his sermon, Pastor Jeff suddenly segued into a prosperity gospel theme, saying that the Bible mentions money more than heaven and hell combined and that God wants us to grow in wealth not for ourselves, but so that we can better serve him. "You can't harvest what you don't sow!" he said. God's plan for us includes our finances.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing. After he finished speaking, Pastor Jeff asked for prayer for "those who need to grow up" and then said, "Have a good week!" whereupon everybody just got up and left.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – This style of worship is too loose for me even though I did like the music in spite of myself. But I find the idea a bit strange that God could accomplish so much more in the world if only he had more money - our money.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The rendering of "Amazing Grace."