Mystery Worshipper: Benny Diction
Church: First United Methodist
Location: San Diego, California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 25 July 2010, 9:30am
A church with a very striking appearance – Ive not been able to find out exactly when it was built, but I would imagine the 1960s or 1970s. It forms part of a complex of buildings: offices, meeting rooms, and a nursery school, amongst other things. It is built on a hillside, so one enters at ground level from the patio and then goes up sweeping stairs (or a lift) to the sanctuary. The sanctuary itself is very beautiful and features a high curved roof. Inside, everything is mostly white or cream, which gives a very tranquil feel to the building. The sides have small stained glass windows running the length of the sanctuary, and the window behind the altar (and it was an altar, fully dressed as such) is floor to ceiling clear glass. This was a master stroke, as it affords a wonderful view of the hillside behind the church, with trees and grasses and bushes and some wildflowers all swaying in the breeze.
They seem very active in all manner of community events. These include All Gods Children, a group for the parents, friends and family of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gender persons; the New Life Counseling Center, offering healing, reconciliation and hope during times of personal and family crisis; and a homebound ministry for those unable to attend church. And we were intrigued by the prayer quilt ministry, where people make requests for prayer and members of the congregation put a stitch in the quilt as they say a prayer for the person. The newsletter listed nine different upcoming events, including Bible study groups and marriage preparation classes. This seems to be a church that just doesnt exist for Sundays.
San Diego, the eighth largest city in the USA and the second largest in California, is situated on the Pacific coast at the southernmost tip of California, a few miles from the Mexican border. It is a well-to-do city with a working port. The United States Navy maintains a large base there. The church sits within the Mission Valley district, an area of offices, car dealerships, hotels and shopping malls. There appeared to be very few houses near the church or in the area, although we realized later that the hills behind the church are home to a large residential area.
The Revd Elbert Kim, minister of education, led the worship and gave the children's address. The Revd Jim Standiford, senior pastor, preached. An unnamed liturgist read the Bible passages. And then there was Miss Becky (see below).
What was the name of the service?Morning Worship
How full was the building?
We estimated that the church could seat around 600 and it must have been 90 per cent full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
On the patio at the front of the church was a table with name badges. We were about to sidestep this and go into the church when a lady wearing a rather strange wig (and she wasn't alone – read on!) pounced on us and asked if we were regulars or visitors. When we confessed to being visitors, she gave us blue badges and told us to write our names on them. (Regulars had red badges.) On entering the church, we were greeted by John and Sally Berry, who chatted with us and pointed the way to the sanctuary. Once in the church, we were wished good morning by a gentleman who gave us a copy of the order of service.
Was your pew comfortable?
Very. These were pews covered in cream leatherette and well padded.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The atmosphere was fairly reverential. The organ was being played beautifully and there was some chatter, but this wasn't obtrusive. We felt we had time to prepare for worship, pray, and take in the view from the window at the front, as well as to read the many leaflets in the book holder in front of us.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome to First Church." This by Pastor Kim, who went on to make some announcements before explaining the format of the service. He told us (very helpfully, we thought) that the call to worship was as if God were calling to each one of us.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
We used the United Methodist Hymnal. There were also copies of The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version available, and we were encouraged to follow the Bible reading from these.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ. I don't know much about pipe organs, but this one sounded good and was well played. It is an opus of L.W. Blackington & Associates of El Cajon, California.
Did anything distract you?
Several things. First, the view from the window at the front of the church. Second, the preponderance of wigs. As well as the badge lady, I spotted several others, including a truly shocking syrup and figs (Cockney rhyming slang, for those unfamiliar with the expression) being worn by one of the male stewards who took up the offertory. It looked like a cat sleeping on top of his head. Had someone set out a saucer of cream, I half expected the "cat" to jump down and lap it up!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
After Pastor Kim's explanation of the call to worship, an all-male choir intoned the call from the gallery and then processed into the sanctuary, led by a crucifer. The hymns were traditional, and the psalm was recited antiphonally. I'm not accustomed to high Methodist, but I soon got used to it and put aside my prejudices. At least the ministers and choir weren't robed – quite the contrary: all participants were dressed in chinos and white shirts, which looked smart yet informal and friendly.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
20 minutes – or so I estimate, as I was so wrapped up in it that I forgot to time it!
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – In some senses the senior pastor wasn't a great orator. But he had a very engaging delivery and a very warm voice, and he had us hooked from the start. He included a very moving personal anecdote about how he had assumed the pastoral mantle of a minister who had died.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The pastor's text was 2 Kings 2:13-18 (Elisha uses Elijah's cloak to part the Jordan River, to the amazement of those in company with him). The pastor used the metaphor of passing on command of a ship (San Diego is a Navy town, remember) to talk about changes in church leadership. This is an important part of how the church moves on, and all of us have a role to play. It is important for the congregation to witness the transition. Christ and the Holy Spirit will guide the congregation.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
This has to be the men's choir, who sang beautifully. Though a close second was the way the senior pastor prayed for a family who were moving from San Diego to Wisconsin due to a job relocation. A very moving prayer.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Pastor Kim gathered the few children there (this was school holidays so many were obviously away) for a talk that neatly tied in with the theme. This was fine. But then he asked one of the Sunday school teachers, a young lady called Miss Becky, to come out and lead the children's song. It was the well known round "Seek ye first the kingdom of God." Miss Becky had decided that there were actions to accompany the song's theme as each voice entered the round. But although she explained the actions and demonstrated them, she didn't have a microphone and no one understood what was going on. Plus there weren't very many children there to start the round off. I felt embarrassed; goodness knows how the children felt.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Given the blue badges we were wearing setting us out as visitors, we expected to be pounced on and directed to coffee. But nothing happened. So we thought maybe coffee was on the patio. Nope. We walked over to the prayer quilt table and asked what it was about. We were told, but still no one seemed to notice that we were visitors. Eventually, after we were spotted taking photos, a lady who had been sitting in our pew came over to us and chatted for a while. She was very friendly, but even she didn't mention coffee. So much for the blue badges – perhaps most of the congregation are color blind. Or maybe their wigs had fallen down over their eyes.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
We never did find any coffee.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – If we were new to San Diego, we'd certainly consider it. Although worship might be a little high, the activities and opportunities for Bible study and fellowship would be an attraction.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes it did. The worship was powerful and the pastor's message could have been addressed to me personally. It was both challenging and encouraging.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?