Mystery Worshipper: Angel Unaware
Church: Faith Lutheran
Location: Troy, Michigan, USA
Date of visit: Saturday, 23 August 2008, 6:00pm
A sprawling complex that weaves together older and newer buildings. The first building dates from 1965, and various additions have been appended to it since. The complex is surrounded by an asphalt parking lot. The church is now worshipping in its third sanctuary, a splashy 1000 seat (plus) venue dedicated in 1997. One enters the building through glass, shopping mall-like front doors. Like many American megachurches, it's not labeled a church but a family life center. Inside, overhead signs direct the visitor to the worship center, gymnasium, café, bookstore, or classrooms and offices.
They engage in ministries aimed at every stage of life, from preschool to adulthood. There are two morning services each Sunday plus a Saturday evening service. The church is served by five ministers (all male) and a support staff of nearly 40 employees.
The city of Troy, Michigan, is a northern, affluent suburb of Detroit and a center of business, particularly in the automotive and financial sectors. Troy is home to a number of major companies, including the Budd Company, maker of many of the railroad cars used on subway lines, Amtrak and commuter routes; the Kelly Services employment agency; and the Cable TV entertainment firm Starz Media. Famous sons include the rather unfortunately named televangelist Jack Van Impe.
The church's senior pastor, the Revd Warren Arndt, dressed in khakis and a silky, open-necked camp shirt.
What was the name of the service?My Journey for King and Kingdom.
How full was the building?
160 souls in the 1000 (plus) seat worship center.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No one greeted me before or after the service. Mercifully, the service started almost as soon as I was seated.
Was your pew comfortable?
Very comfy and plush cineplex-style upholstered theater seats. They must have busted their budget for these beauties.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet. Empty. Three cameramen were practicing swiveling their cameras about. It was so abandoned that I consulted my bulletin twice to make sure I was at the correct place at the correct time for worship. Soon the praise band warmed up, and then vocalists began to sing the prelude or rehearse for the service, I wasn't sure which.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"It Is Written don't you just love the way that song builds?"
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Bible verses were projected up on a screen, as were all the songs, karaoke-style, over photos of seagulls, sunsets, ocean waves and bedewed roses. Even with such appealing graphics, though, no one around me participated in the singing.
What musical instruments were played?
Piano, digital keyboard, guitars, and two percussions sets (one encased in a plexiglas fishbowl). A large, amplified choir, all dressed in street clothes, stood behind the musicians.
Did anything distract you?
The choir director, who stood center stage with back facing the congregation, kicked up his heels as he directed the choir with one finger. It all looked very stork-like, and I could hardly contain a snicker.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Lutherans trying to be charismatic. Even though the sacrament of holy baptism was administered to an infant, the pastor chose to speak extemporaneously about the sacrament rather than follow any historic Lutheran liturgy. The rest of the service also followed this free-form, rambling model. The parents and godparents of the baptized infant had the good sense to be more appropriately dressed for the occasion than did the pastor.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
2 – The pastor used amazingly dull, run-of-the-mill stuff for much of the sermon: the importance of passing the baton to today’s youth (an opaque reference to the baptism?), a moral lesson about being optimistic in the face of challenges, another lesson about being patient – all of which was hard to argue with. The problem was that the sermon wasn’t particularly robust, moving, or sharply focused. As my teenage son would say, "It was totally random." What is more, the message was completely disconnected from the scripture lesson. Ironically, the sermon was entitled “Help!” Indeed!
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It began with a 30-second video introduction to a new 13 week sermon series. After the video clip, a bulletin insert of the sermon outline was projected to help us follow the flow of the sermon. We were invited to “fill in the blanks” on the insert as the pastor progressed through the sermon, even though the answers were flashed up on the screen. The sermon was a 36 minute recitation of random thoughts and clichés that could be summed up in two sentences: "God, in God’s goodness, does not give us what we deserve. Therein is our hope." Most curious was the centerpiece of the sermon: a sort of intermission as a soloist sang the Beatles’ hit song “Help.” After this American Idol moment was over, the pastor concluded his talk and we went back to filling in our blanks!
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Watching the parents gratefully bring their child to be baptized. The central stained-glassed window, depicting a cross, also helped me keep my focus through many distractions and confused moments.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
That I was subjected to the wisdom of the Beatles as the main meat of a sermon in worship.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No one spoke to me. Some folks sprinted ahead of me to switch on lights in the church's bookstore and coffee house. I followed the signs to the Coffee Café and perused the bookstore en route.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
This was interesting. The bulletin invited visitors to the Coffee Café to enjoy a cup of gourmet coffee on us after the service. I found the Coffee Café the décor very Starbuckish though no coffee was available, let alone of the gourmet kind. Further, a sign on an easel proclaimed, No Food or Drink. All the while, an overhead speaker crackled with the sound of a piano tinkling hymn tunes; this was projected Muzak-style throughout the building.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – I can listen to the Beatles on my own, and be alone on my own.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
On my trek home, I felt inexplicably sad that another Lutheran church has all but abandoned its beautiful, historic liturgy and intellectual tradition in favor of a very bland ministry. Help!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The strange, stork-like movements of the choir director, and the fact that the congregation were better dressed for the occasion than the pastor.