Calvary United Methodist, Phoenix, Arizona, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Calvary United Methodist
Location: Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 17 November 2019, 10:00am

The building

Not a bad looking little building. Unfortunately it is no longer used, as I would discover. Instead, they meet in the fellowship hall, a plain cuboid box a few yards away. The inside is plain, with drab gray walls and tan tile floor. On a slightly raised platform sits a round table covered by a tablecloth, on which there were two candles, a cross, and a small basket whose purpose would become clear later on. Also on the platform were a lectern and chairs for the singers. On the back wall was a picture of a lion.

The church

They donate hats, gloves, and Thanksgiving and Christmas food boxes to two local elementary schools. They also support Training Hearts, a local CPR and first aid instruction program. They partner with the St Mary’s Food Bank Alliance, one of the area’s most well known providers of meal assistance to the needy. There is one worship service on Sunday, plus a Wednesday night Bible study and prayer meeting.

The neighborhood

They are located on Indian School Road, one of the principal east-west routes through Phoenix and its suburbs, slightly west of 79th Avenue – primarily a working class residential area. This is the Maryvale neighborhood of Phoenix, named after the developer’s wife, not the Blessed Mother, and originally developed in the 1950s as a master planned community that discouraged ‘those kinds’ from moving in. But demographics change with time, and today Maryvale is primarily Hispanic, with a reputation for crime and gang activity that has resisted cleanup efforts. Urban legend has it that packs of feral chihuahuas plague the neighborhood, terrorizing children on bicycles, chasing cars, and creating unsanitary conditions – although one local newspaper that investigated the matter claims that its reporter counted more plastic lawn flamingos than dogs. Miss Amanda is no stranger to Maryvale – there is a cinema there that features first-run Hollywood films either dubbed in Spanish or with Spanish subtitles – and she has never been attacked by a chihuahua, or even a jabberwock for that matter.

The cast

Their website does not identify the clergy and staff, and no introductions were given. A lady wearing a white blouse and floor-length flower-patterned skirt opened the service. She was assisted by a lady in a green dress with large circular shield-like designs scattered about. A lady who I assume was the pastor, wearing a black floor-length dress and green stole, preached.

What was the name of the service?

Sunday Worship.

How full was the building?

There were thirty chairs. At the beginning of the service only seven of them were occupied. People continued to trickle in until well into the pastor’s sermon – I would say the final count was around 21. Only three mothers with teenaged children – the rest seemed to be single men or single women of varying ages.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

At ten minutes before service time I approached the sanctuary, only to find it locked. A girl walked up to me and asked me if I was looking for something. I replied that I thought there was a service at 10.00. She said that it would be in the fellowship hall. A gentleman then came up and asked, ‘Are you looking for your sister?’ ‘No,’ I replied, ‘I’m looking for the service.’ He, too, pointed me to the fellowship hall, explaining that the congregation had shrunk so small that they no longer use the sanctuary. Once inside, I was greeted by only one or two people. During the offertory (see below), a few other people said hello and asked me my name.

Was your pew comfortable?

The chair could have been wider and plusher, but it was basically OK.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Not much of an atmosphere with only seven people there.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Please stand for the lighting of the altar candles.’ Whereupon two girls walked up the aisle carrying lit tapers and performed the duty in question.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

None. Words to the songs were projected.

What musical instruments were played?

There were four singers, one of whom played the flute at times, but basically the music was accompanied by a canned sound track. An upright piano and (mercifully) a drum set remained silent.

Did anything distract you?

I kept wondering about the picture of the lion on the wall. And the gentleman sitting next to me was eventually joined by a woman, a latecomer, who I assume was his wife, and the two of them carried on an extended conversation sotto voce. The lady in the white blouse and flowered skirt was a dead ringer for the legendary singer Kate Smith.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

A rather lively hymn sandwich. The music was of the easy listening, banal lyrics, tuneless melodies, type. I saw people’s mouths moving but didn’t hear much singing. However, there was quite a bit of arm waving and hand clapping. I was trying to imagine what Charles Wesley would have thought of it all. There was the occasional ‘Amen,’ ‘Hallelujah’ or ‘Thank you, Jesus’ – this got more intense during the pastor’s sermon. At the offertory, we brought our offerings up to the altar ourselves and deposited them in the small basket mentioned above. This was when people seemed to begin to notice that there was a stranger in their midst and began to greet me (well, one or two did, anyway).

Exactly how long was the sermon?

31 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

7 — I was all set to give the pastor a zero because she shouted her entire sermon – had she been holding a Bible, I’m sure she would have thumped it – and peppered her remarks with ‘Oh Lordy!’ and other such interjections. Also, at first I had no idea of what she was talking about, she rambled on so. But eventually her talk became more coherent and I actually began to enjoy it. Except for the shouting, that is. I turned the volume down on my hearing aids – didn’t help. I turned them off – didn’t help either.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The gospel reading had been Matthew 16:13-20 (Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah and receives the keys to the Kingdom). (The lady reading it – the Kate Smith lady – made a Freudian slip, saying ‘whatever you loose on earth will be lost in heaven’). However, the pastor began with Matthew 13:11-12 (not everybody has been given insight into God’s kingdom – the translation she used was The Message, which renders it that way). ‘Being in position’ to be a Christian is not the same as going to church. In the old days, everyone went to church, but that doesn’t mean they all had a relationship with God. To have a relationship with God, you must ‘be in position’ – i.e., know that what God represents is the truth. When Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, he was ‘in position’ – he ‘got it’ – and so Jesus gave him the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. We don’t give out our keys indiscriminately – you wouldn’t give your car keys to a child, or your house keys to a stranger. We only give keys to people who we trust will use them properly. We’ve got to know how the keys work. We have to be ‘in position’ like Peter was. You don’t have to go to church to worship God, but if you don’t, you miss out on the fellowship, your relation to other Christians as you all worship together. Add God’s keys to your key ring!

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Well, the pastor’s sermon transported me despite her shouting and the Pentecostal-like reaction of the congregation.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

What a shame that this congregation has become so small that they can’t even use their church building anymore. And I really do think that Charles Wesley would turn over in his grave if the musical offerings from today’s service had somehow wafted into his coffin. What a pity they can’t even attract a pianist to bang out hymns from The United Methodist Hymnal.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

The pastor ended her service with an altar call: ‘Is God calling you? Come sit at the foot of the cross and let us pray with you.’ I didn’t see anyone go forward, and I took advantage of the opportunity to slip out the back. The gentleman sitting next to me, who had been busily whispering to his wife, asked me if they’d see me again. I gave him a non-committal answer. The green-dress lady asked me if I had signed the guest register, and I replied, ‘No’ and kept on walking. I confess I may have been a bit rude.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Quoting from their website: ‘After worship, we gather in the fellowship hall for tasty treats, and an opportunity to get to know one another.’ I’m sure that happened, but I didn’t stay for it.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

0 – This is not my style of worship. I don’t begrudge this congregation their fellowship and their preferred worship style, and I do hope they can manage to keep their church alive, but I don’t see myself as a part of it.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

After a while.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The picture of the lion on the wall.

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