Mystery Worshipper: Sabbath Man
Church: Church of the Servant
Location: Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 22 July 2007, 8:30am
Modern, sparse, airy. A fellowship hall and classrooms have been added recently to the building. The sanctuary is very compelling – bright, open, large banners for the season of Pentecost hanging above the chancel. The congregation sits in a semicircle around the chancel. There are several earthenware chalices on the table as well as some sort of ethnic/third-world candleholder.
This is a rather unusual congregation for the Christian Reformed Church, which is essentially a Calvinistic denomination. The congregation traces its roots back to the late 1960s/early 1970s when some students and faculty of Calvin College (an institution administered by the Christian Reformed Church) sought a different kind of church. They place great emphasis on liturgy and celebrate the sacrament of holy communion each week. A progressive social conscience is also part of their history and ethos. It seems fair to say that the church is molded by a healthy, although perhaps sometimes competing, tension between the artistic and the intellectual.
Grand Rapids is a city in southwest Michigan, known throughout the late 19th and mid 20th centuries as the premier furniture manufacturing center of the United States. Even today it remains a world leader in the production of office furniture. There are also several major Christian publishing houses located here. The church is situated near Calvin College, tucked back quite a ways off the road, in an area where there can also be found some public housing and/or minority-ethnic enclaves. Indeed, the church sponsors a very active ESL (English as second language) program and speaks of the residents of the area as "our neighbors."
The Revd Jack Roeda, senior pastor, was the preacher and celebrant. The Rev Josh Baron opened the service and officiated early on in the liturgy. Ron Reinstra led the intercessory prayer. A young couple, Sabrina and Jonathan Moore, read the scripture, she in English and he in French.
What was the name of the service?Worship Service (Pentecost season).
How full was the building?
The sanctuary was probably about three-quarters full. I was told that the later service is much more full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
We were quite early and probably somewhat conspicuous. A woman welcomed us and gave us a tour of the building. Then before worship we had another brief conversation with a younger man.
Was your pew comfortable?
We sat in very comfortable contemporary armchairs.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Hushed but somehow active. Not still and sterile, nor chatty and buzzing.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
What books did the congregation use during the service?
We sang from the Psalter Hymnal. There was also a three-ring binder full of copied music which we did not use that day. It looked to be full of world-church and Iona style music. There was also a 16-page worship bulletin containing the service completely written out.
What musical instruments were played?
A grand piano, played well, but definitely in an accompanying, non-showy manner. A conga and double bass were used on some songs.
Did anything distract you?
Not much was distracting in a negative way. If anything, I was attentive and eager to see what creative wrinkle might happen next – liturgical dancers, the scripture being read in two languages, the sacrament being shared in a large circle around the table, etc.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was very liturgical, but with a sort of artsy, folk-hippy flavor. I appreciate good liturgy and this was, but it sometimes felt a little overstudied and exaggerated. A female liturgical dancer brought a jug of water forward and poured it into the baptismal font during the assurance of pardon. She and five other liturgical dancers, of varying ages, danced in groups of three (trinitarian presumably) during the sanctus.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Pastor Roeda is a good preacher – very thoughtful, honest, quietly humorous and sometimes intense in an understated way. He has a very didactic, literary, professorial approach, with allusions to Dorothy Sayer, Dante, Bonhoeffer, etc. But 36 minutes is just too long for me.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
What it takes and means to be a genuine community – a very thorough study of Galatians 5. As I recall, he unpacked four or five separate verses. I would have preferred to have his comments on each verse pruned considerably, or a narrower focus on a fewer number of verses.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Sharing of communion in a circle of people around the table followed by some beautiful congregational singing while other groups of people went forward to partake.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The Christian Reformed Church has a history of closed communion or "fencing the table." That wasn't the case here, but the invitation to the table still seemed overly fastidious and moralistic ("All who are truly sorry for their sins, who sincerely believe... who desire to live in obedience") and thus not very invitational or hospitable. Also, I am generally not a fan of projection screens in worship, but if you are going to use 16 pages to print the liturgy every week, might not screens be a better alternative, if only for the sake of the environment?
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We followed the crowd to the fellowship hall where several people approached us and chatted with us.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The coffee was good – very strong and dark. Tea and lemonade were also available.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – This is about the most thoughtful, beautiful worship I have experienced in a church in the Reformed-Presbyterian tradition. I sensed that the congregation's values and ethos would be very comfortable and familiar to me. The place pulses with creativity, even if sometimes it verges on being a little too pretentious and academic.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. A congregation like this makes me hopeful and excited about the possibilities for the Church.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The bright, airy creativity of the whole place.