A clean-lined but rather plain looking collection of buildings. From the parking lot one enters through the door clearly labeled Sanctuary, to find oneself in a rather narrow anteroom off which opens the oblong rectangular worship space. The altar was ablaze with poinsettias, and on it sat a Nativity diorama made out of what appeared to be milk glass (at least I hope it wasn’t ivory). A Nativity scene was projected onto the wall. Choir seating was to the left, on risers. To the right was a large Christmas tree surrounded by a drum set (thankfully silent at this service), music stands and microphones. An electronic organ console sat in the rear of the church.
They have small groups, women’s and men’s ministries, a Stephen Ministry, Operation Barnabas (reaching out to military families), and a health ministry. There is also a Memory Café for those experiencing memory issues, consisting of (quoting from their website) “fellowship, light refreshments, activities, in a safe, supportive, loving, social environment.” They conduct a special outreach to the deaf, with the early service each Sunday being an interpreted service. There are three services each Sunday: two with (again quoting from their website) “traditional hymnal singing with organ accompaniment” and the third with “modern Christian songs in our traditional liturgical setting.” There is also a Saturday evening service that features “blended worship, traditional hymns led by piano and voices.”
Peoria is a sprawling northwestern suburb of Phoenix. The church is located on 75th Avenue between Greenway Road and Thunderbird Road, primarily a middle class residential area featuring ranch-style homes and the usual assortment of strip malls.
The pastor took the service. Dressed in a black clerical suit with Roman collar beforehand, for the service he changed into an alb, cincture, and blue stole adorned with figures from the Nativity. There was a choir of 15 voices dressed in burgundy robes with white scapulars.
What was the name of the service?Christmas Eve Candlelight Service.
How full was the building?
There were about 200 chairs and it was completely full. Extra chairs had to be set out in the front, back, and aisles. Mostly a middle aged to elderly crowd, with some younger faces but very few children.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A gentleman at the door gave me a service leaflet and said, “Hi. How ya doin’?” but that was it.
Was your pew comfortable?
Conference room style chair – comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The choir were rehearsing. People visited loudly. The pastor worked the room, shaking hands and chatting. As service time approached, the words “Please prepare for worship in silent meditation” were projected as the organist played a medley of carols. Some people apparently read this as “Please prepare for worship by talking over the organ.”
What were the exact opening words of the service?
“Good evening, everyone.”
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The service leaflet contained the prayers, readings and responses. Words to hymns were projected. The Lutheran Service Book and The Holy Bible, New International Version were in the seats but not used.
What musical instruments were played?
Electronic organ, digital piano, violin, bell choir.
Did anything distract you?
A young gentleman wearing a Santa Claus hat apparently forgot (for surely he was taught) that gentlemen remove their hats indoors, especially in church. Ditto for another gentleman wearing a baseball cap. A young lady wore a black dress and black stiletto heels – if the dress were any skimpier it would have been mistaken for a sash. There were two envelopes in the seats – one pink and one yellow – in which one could enclose one’s offering. I wondered what the difference was between the two. I chose a pink envelope to conceal my Mystery Worship calling card.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Sober but joyful. The music consisted entirely of traditional Christmas carols and choir anthems, solos, and a handbell number based on same. There was an opening psalm, confession and absolution, a special Christmas prayer, Old and New Testament readings, sermon, intercessions, the singing of “Silent Night” to candlelight, and a concluding benediction. A lady signed the entire service, including the music, for a group of people sitting together who were apparently deaf.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 — I’m flipping all the cards because the pastor spoke clearly and was easy to hear, thanks in part to an excellent sound system. Other churches could learn from their acoustical engineer. The pastor glanced down at his notes only now and then, and his sermon was well organized and well delivered.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
His text was the gospel reading, Luke 2:1-20 (Luke’s account of the Nativity), especially verse 19 (“But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart”). Mary long remembered the events that took place that holy night. Do we store treasures in our hearts? Or do we store up rejection, loss, fear, suffering, depression? It’s easy to hold onto hurt. But God gives us a fresh start – the opportunity to treasure what Mary treasured: “good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” We need a savior. Embrace him. Trust him. Put faith in him. Treasure him for the rest of your life. Make Mary’s treasure your own – get rid of all the rest once and for all.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
There was so much I liked about this service: the exquisite playing of the handbell choir, the lovely solos (and no one applauded for a change!), the sermon, the signing for the deaf, the quiet joy that permeated the entire evening.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
But if I have to fault something, I’m going to fault the choir for rehearsing in church before the service. Are there no choir rooms? And I’m also going to fault the people who apparently thought that “silent meditation” meant “talk louder.” These same people also saw fit to talk during the organ solo played at offertory time, and as our candles were being lit for “Silent Night.” And speaking of candles, I somehow managed not to get one, and I noticed that a few others didn’t have them either. Just as well – I can do without hot wax dripping on my hands.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After the closing benediction, the president of the congregation presented a Christmas gift to the pastor with the usual congratulatory speech and applause. After that everyone cleared out pretty fast, as another service was coming in later (although there was plenty of time – at least 45 minutes).
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 — This was a special service with lots of visitors, and I have reservations about some of the beliefs of Missouri Synod Lutherans, but I’d like to stop in again to see what their ordinary Sunday services are like. The preaching was top-rate, the music was excellent, and the service was conducted with dignity. These are all important things that I look for in a church.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
“Treasure what Mary treasured and get rid of all the rest.”