Portsmouth United Church of Christ, Portsmouth, Virginia, USA

Portsmouth United Church of Christ, Portsmouth, Virginia, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: The G.O.A.T
Church: Portsmouth United Church of Christ
Location: Portsmouth, Virginia, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 28 June 2009, 11:00am

The building

The church is mainly a one-story brick building. However, the sanctuary portion forms an A-shape that is about three stories high. There is also an added wing that contains a fellowship hall, a kitchen, and classrooms. In the red-carpeted sanctuary, there is a middle aisle with two sets of pews on either side. In addition, there are three rows of decorative glass windows that adorn the sides.

The church

The church seems to have a mission of helping others. When I arrived for Sunday school, a few of the church members were preparing meals to feed the homeless for later that afternoon.

The neighborhood

Portsmouth, in southeastern Virginia at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, was founded in 1620 as a plantation community and incorporated as a town in 1752, being named after its counterpart in England. It was an important shipbuilding center right from the start. During the American Civil War, Portsmouth's shipyards built the ironclad vessel often mistakenly called the Merrimac (it was actually the Virginia), which fought the Union ship the Monitor in a sea battle that marked the first engagement of ironclad (as opposed to wooden hulled) ships. As such, the battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac (as history books call it) received worldwide attention and influenced naval shipbuilding for decades to come. Today, the U.S. Navy maintains a major presence in Portsmouth. The city's Old Towne district includes one of the largest collections of historically significant homes to be found anywhere in the United States.

The cast

The Revd Charles E. Chappell, senior pastor, led the service.

What was the name of the service?

Traditional Service.

How full was the building?

The building was about one-fifth full. The sanctuary could hold at least 150 to 200 people. However, I counted approximately 30 people – and that's being generous. According to the church bulletin, the previous week's attendance was 22. Once I sat down, I had to chuckle to myself when, a few minutes later, a gentleman told me that I had almost sat in his seat.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

An usher gave me a program and shook my hand. There was a greeter named Alice, who was welcoming people who entered through the main door. However, due to my attending Sunday school, I entered through a side door and so was able to bypass Ms Alice. Due to the small number of members, visitors must have really stood out. In the first minute of the church service, I was welcomed by Pastor Chappell.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes. It had a wooden back with red cushioning.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Some people were silently meditating, others were sitting quietly. There was recorded music playing. A few minutes before the start of the service, one of the acolytes, Sydney, lit candles on the pulpit.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

Pastor Chappell said, "Good morning, each one."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Each pew contained The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, and hymn books.

What musical instruments were played?

There were no musical instruments played during the service. It was only our voices. Someone later informed me that the organist was ill. The lyrics to songs were displayed on a screen via an overhead projector.

Did anything distract you?

It was very warm in the sanctuary. There were a few ladies fanning themselves. I was sweating a little. In addition, there was an attractive blonde wearing a black "I love PETA" t-shirt (the word "love" being represented by a heart), whom I kept sporadically glancing at during the service. (PETA stands for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which is based in nearby Norfolk and is the largest animal rights group in the world.) Being curious, I visited PETA's website and noticed that the price of her t-shirt was $20.

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

The worship was very traditional. There were many statements from the pulpit with corresponding responses from the congregation.We sang selections from the hymnal like "Amazing Grace" and "Take My Life and Let It Be."

Exactly how long was the sermon?

31 minutes.

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

10 – The pastor came down from the pulpit to give his message. He was amiable and liked to use sermon illustrations. He delivered his message with lots of passion.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The title of the message was "Please Stop Giving. We Have Enough." He differentiated between three types of people: Givers – What I have is mine, but I will share it with you if you need it. Takers – What's yours is mine and I am going to take it. Keepers – What's mine is mine and I am going to keep it; you can't have any of it. He also mentioned that the world has lost the idea of stewardship. We are not good stewards of the environment (upon this statement, the lady wearing the "I love PETA" t-shirt nodded her head vigorously).

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

There was a "children's moment" in the service when all the younger children (all three of them) were invited to come to the front of the church. The pastor's wife attempted to teach the children about the Three Ts: time, talents and tithe. I am sure the children understood what was being taught to them, but they were very quiet and did not speak unless encouraged to. Perhaps they were too nervous.

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

At the conclusion of the service, the pastor gave a closing prayer that was extremely long and detailed. I think he may have prayed for every believer by name – past, present, and future! In addition, during the sermon, there was an older gentleman up front who seemed to be nodding off. I guess the gentleman was more noticeable because he was sitting in the front row and the pastor was standing beside him.

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

As soon as the service was over, quite a few people instantly came over to me and invited me back.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

None was on offer.

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

5 – It's a good church where the pastor preaches the Bible. However, I prefer slightly bigger congregations.

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

With the organist being sick, the only musical sounds were from our lifted voices. It was refreshing to hear. And it reminded me of how fearfully and wonderfully made we are.

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

Admittedly, there were not a lot of people in attendance. However, in my 25 plus years of church attendance, I have never seen a parking lot empty out as fast as this one did!

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