Hennepin Avenue United Methodist, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Hennepin Avenue United Methodist
Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 14 June 2020, 10:00am

The building

Photo: © Susan Lesch and used under license The congregation began in 1875 as a breakaway group from another church. They met at first in a wooden ‘tabernacle’ and later in a red brick building that proved to be unsuitable right from the start. Their present building, dating from 1916, was crafted in the English Gothic style by local architects Hewitt and Brown, who designed numerous churches, public buildings and private homes in Minneapolis. Both the interior and exterior have been extensively renovated over the years, culminating in 2004 in a new east entrance that stands in stark contrast to the building’s stately Gothic design.

The church

From their website: ‘We are a reconciling congregation and are proud to welcome all persons.’ Their numerous ministries are well documented on their website. Of special note is Street Song, a choral group comprised of homeless or formerly homeless persons, which (again quoting from their website) ‘draws on the experiences, hopes, and aspirations of its members to produce a choral experience promoting personal fulfillment and the development of community.’ While in-person services are suspended at the moment, there are two live-stream services available for viewing every Sunday, as well as a ‘Zoom Coffee Hour’ following the later service.

The neighborhood

Hennepin Avenue is a major thoroughfare dividing the city of Minneapolis into north and south addresses. It is named for Louis Hennepin, a Belgian Franciscan missionary who explored the Great Lakes area in the late 17th century and is credited for bringing Niagara Falls to world attention. Minneapolis’ theater district is located along Hennepin Avenue, as are the Roman Catholic Basilica of St Mary and St Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral. At the other end of the cultural spectrum, Minneapolis’ oldest still-operating gay bar is also located there. The Hennepin Avenue Bridge, erected in 1855 but replaced twice since then, was the first bridge to span the Mississippi River at any point. Recently the bridge was the site of demonstrations in connection with the civil unrest that Minneapolis has seen.

The cast

The senior pastor, associate pastor (whose name I fell in love with – check their website for details), and assorted staff members and congregants took various parts of the service.

What was the name of the service?

Traditional Worship. I gather that the earlier service, which was called ‘Sacred Journey,’ was in contemporary format.

How full was the building?

Impossible to say – there was no counter displayed.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

The associate pastor welcomed us on-screen, from what appeared to be her living room.

Was your pew comfortable?

My desk chair was its usual comfortable self.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I tuned in early. A message was displayed asking us to ‘check in’ at the indicated URL address. Another message suggested how we might give (one option being to send a text message indicating the amount). The check-in screen asked for a variety of information such as name, address, phone number and children’s ages, as well as ‘Is this your first time here?’ and ‘How did you hear about us?’ I decided not to check in, lest I be tempted to give false information. There was also a live chat box displayed, as well as a countdown clock. The countdown clock was five minutes fast, but when it expired a variety of announcements displayed against a light-hearted musical background. The service itself started three minutes late.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Praise the Lord with all that you have,’ spoken by a gentleman from what appeared to be his bedroom.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

An all-inclusive service sheet in PDF format was available for download. Words to the hymns were displayed on-screen, as were the prayers. Scripture readings were taken from The Message, which the lector admitted was ‘a paraphrase.’ Oy veh! as our Jewish friends would say in Yiddish.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, accompanying a small mixed choir, for the hymns. Piano and flute for an anthem, which was the one departure from the traditional music that was used for the rest of the service.

Did anything distract you?

Some of the messages appearing in the live-chat box were distracting, e.g. ‘I can hear the pastor but not the lector,’ ‘Check your mute button.’ Etc. Also, there were some discrepancies between the words to the prayers, as spoken and as they appeared in the service leaflet, vs what was displayed on-screen. At one point during the sermon, a timer clock started to ring. The preacher, unfazed, simply turned it off and continued on with the sermon.

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

It was a traditional service of the Word in hymn-sandwich format, but in an order different from what one usually finds – for example, the intercessions, called ‘Call to Lament,’ came very early in the service, as did the passing of the peace. There was a children’s talk, aimed I thought at children with longer-than-average attention spans. The service ended with a blessing and a jovial organ recessional played very well.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

20 minutes.

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

5 — The associate pastor preached. I’m pretty sure she was reading her sermon from a teleprompter. I think it would have been easier to follow if we, too, were reading it rather than listening to it. It seemed rather wordy and convoluted to me even though she was trying her best to give it some expression. Her sermon was ripe with pointed references to the tragic events of the past few weeks.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

It was entitled ‘Finding Hope from Here to There.’ How can we share God’s message of hope? Who thought that Minneapolis would find itself at the epicenter of a global movement? Hopelessness crushes us under the heel of despair. How can we find hope when we are surrounded by so much hopelessness? But recent events have unleashed a torrent of emotion, a cry for justice. Faith teaches us two things about Jesus: that he is the Christ, the Messiah, but also that he was human just like we are, living in a world consumed by hopelessness. He had to confront conflicting thoughts about who he was. His cousin John, whom we call the Baptist, was arrested and paid the ultimate price for the unforgivable crime of speaking the truth. This event transformed Jesus, and people began to see something in him and to follow him. Jesus’ words brought his followers out of hopelessness and into hope. When we tap into our own humanity, we open ourselves to receiving the Spirit. We will not let hopelessness and powerlessness be the end of the story. Justice has friends; justice has believers; and so we are not hopeless. Jesus is telling us: Just as you grieve for all who have died in these past few weeks, so too did I grieve for my cousin John – and that grief changed me. At the center of our lives is the spark of divinity that gives us all we need to overcome hopelessness, to build a future where all lives matter.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The offertory anthem, ‘Lord of All Hopefulness’ sung to the tune of Slane, was recorded in 2019 and sung in church by a choir vested in cassocks and surplices. Slane is a tune written in heaven itself, and the choir’s rendition was simply heavenly as well.

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

Their website advertised this service as being ‘live’ and held ‘in the sanctuary.’ But it was obviously pre-recorded and pre-edited, and held in the participants’ living rooms, bedrooms, studies, etc. And speaking of editing, I found myself wishing that the Reader’s Digest had gotten hold of it before it was broadcast, as I found it excessively wordy and excessively long. Finally, for some reason, they began the Lord’s Prayer with ‘Our God’ rather than ‘Our Father.’ Why?

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

The service ended 20 minutes before the advertised start time of the Zoom Coffee Hour. I clicked the link anyway and received a message saying to wait for the host to start the meeting. So while I was waiting, I put the finishing touches on my report. When the Zoom session finally started, it appeared that most of the people joining were actually looking to join a different session that was going on simultaneously. At length, about a dozen or so people remained in the Zoom Coffee Hour. Most of them appeared to be regular parishioners, and they primarily chatted amongst themselves about things meaningful to them, so I listened for awhile but eventually left the meeting.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

It was only 9.00 in Phoenix, and I had already had breakfast. I’ve been tempted to keep some mid-morning snacks in the house, such as bagels or muffins, but I’ve gained five pounds during my sheltering-in-place and they have to come off!

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

7 — Well, this does appear to be a congregation with its liturgical and community act together. Were I to visit Minneapolis after ‘all this’ is finally over, I might stop in to see what their traditional sanctuary service is actually like. But I wouldn’t be tempted to join another on-line service in its present format.

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


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

The associate pastor’s wonderful name.

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