Mystery Worshipper: Paltry thing
Church: First Baptist
Location: Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
Date of visit: Sunday, 19 March 2006, 11:00am
The church building is a 1970s modern brick affair attached to a high-rise apartment complex for senior citizens. It is neat and inviting and unpretentious. You enter a narrow hallway, rather than a narthex of any sort, and from there make your way into a warm, brick worship space filled with glorious natural light (there's a skylight over the altar area and four large plate glass windows set high on the liturgical west wall.) Very nice worship space uplifting. It looks like they have salvaged the pews from the older building that this one replaced.
The ministries listed on their website indicate the usual: a music program, Sunday school, a women's group, teen group, and various mission fund raising events. The congregation is predominantly white and gray-haired, although there were a few kids present for the children's story before being dismissed for Sunday school. I noticed one woman who might qualify as a "bag lady" she had her goods in a plastic shopping bag and wore many, many layers of mismatched clothes and a bright yellow toque (as we call it in Canada a knitted cap). She sat alone and didn't join in the congregational singing.
Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, occupies the southern tip of Vancouver Island and is for the most part a pleasant city very popular with tourists. However, the area known as Cormorant Street, immediately to the east of the church, is lined with cheap rooming houses for university students and others too poor to live anywhere else. There one can witness heroin addicts shooting up as well as overhear tawdry domestic squabbles. The worship community at First Baptist was decidedly not the Cormorant Street crowd.
The preacher and primary worship leader was the Rev. Dr Axel Schoeber, senior pastor. A young woman named Nancy led the pre-worship hymn sing, and a gentleman whose name I didn't catch led the children's sermon. Mr Bob Kroeger served as organist and choir director and Elsie Coles offered the solo.
What was the name of the service?Morning Worship
How full was the building?
Comfortably full. I'd say there were upwards of 100 people in a space that probably bulges at 150. There were enough people to feel anonymous if you wanted but not so many that you felt lost in the crowd.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was met at the door by a woman named Meg, who invited me in very cheerfully. As I signed the guest book, I chatted with someone named Nora. Both were warm and hospitable. Nora gave me a small cloth rose to put on my shirt to identify me as a visitor.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, the pews from the old building had been given padded cushions, making them very user friendly. However, the pew I chose (one at the back) was elevated on a small bleacher-like stand, and every time we stood for a hymn my feet were drawn to the edge and I would teeter to and fro until I got upright. I felt oddly constrained on this tiny dais, even though my view of the pulpit was improved.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Nancy, who led the pre-service hymns, sang several numbers to a guitar accompaniment, thus creating a quiet and reflective atmostphere. Even though the words to the hymns were printed in a separate pre-service bulletin, only a few people sang here and there, creating a tiny buzz in the room. I felt I could join the singing or just listen to the guitarist, as I wished. I listened and enjoyed.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, everyone. Welcome to worship this morning. If you are a guest, a double welcome to you."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Hymnal: For Worship and Celebration and a printed service bulletin.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, piano and guitar. The guitarist, as I mentioned, was understated and very reverential. I enjoyed her gifts of music a lot. The organ was absolutely awful: wooden, lifeless. Interestingly, the organist did double duty as pianist, and on the piano he had a lovely light touch that was a pleasure to hear. Recommendation? Ditch the organ altogether. The place sings with the other instruments.
Did anything distract you?
The pastor spoke with a sing-song lilt to his voice. I got the impression that he viewed the members of the congregation as a class of grade school students (indeed, he had formerly been a schoolteacher). I'm sure he is a lovely, devout man, but there was a smugness or self-satisfied tone to his voice that wore thin pretty quickly.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Mostly plodding. It was the type of service that one would expect 40 years ago full of unexpanded theses and mindless repetition. The expression "The blood of Jesus washes away your sins" must have been repeated a hundred times I was at the point of screaming! Except for the children's sermon, the choir anthem and the solo piece, I think the Spirit slipped out of the place and went for coffee once the invocation prayer began.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 – This is a hard one to judge in some respects. I think Paster Schoeber has the potential for becoming a fine orator. He has a sense of rhetoric and knows how to weave life and text together in such a way that 27 minutes did not feel at all too long – and I'm one who gets bored after eight minutes, so this is a compliment. But his sermon was utterly devoid of imagination. Add the sing-song voice and I have to give him a 4.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Betrayal. The pastor retold the text of Mark 14:43-52 (Judas betrays Jesus at Gethsemane). The feelings of the various characters in the narrative were examined, and hypothetical behind-the-scenes relationships were described. He attempted to relate all this to contemporary experiences of betrayal, concluding with the thought that Jesus is a faithful friend who stands by us and we can take comfort in that. It all sounded wonderful, but what did it mean? And then came an altar call: "If accepting Jesus into your life is not a step you've taken, I urge you to do so now." The altar call reminded me of a Christmas fruitcake – someone always trots one out because it's expected, not because fruitcake would actually complement the meal. It was at the altar call that I decided to lower my score from 5 to 4.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Soaring miles above the otherwise plodding service were the simple guitar at the beginning, Elsie Cole's musical solo, and the choir anthem. The music was clearly chosen with care and enabled one to catch a glimpse of the great mystery.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The pedantic organ playing, the humdrum service save for the music, and a sermon that held my attention for 27 minutes without delivering any meaning.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I stood forever at the back of the worship space, making a fuss over gathering up my coat and papers, while three small cliques of elderly ladies squeezed by me to get out the door. Not a word of hello was said. Meg and Nora, who had been so friendly when I came in, were nowhere to be found. Then a young woman came up to me and chatted for a few moments, asking where I was from and that sort of thing. It was Nancy the guitarist, whose music I had enjoyed so much at the beginning. But she soon went on to talk to someone else, so I joined the line waiting to greet the pastor. Just before I got to him, he took a couple aside and began to speak to them earnestly. I glanced around a bit more, trying to muster up enough courage to go downstairs for coffee. Finally I sort of wandered outside, feeling most awkward.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Didn't get a chance to sample it. My nerve failed me before I made it downstairs.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – I think I would slowly suffocate here. Although the worship space was lovely and the music really quite fine, I felt I would have to work too hard to fit in to want to make the effort.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I'm afraid I have to say no. I mean, I didn't feel bad or anything, I just felt: who cares? There was no mystery here. No awe. No invitation to encounter a living God. It was all glib emptiness, all mindless repetition.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Stepping out of such a drab experience into the glorious Victoria sunshine, and how lovely Nancy's guitar playing had been – and the fact that she alone spoke to me after worship.