A neo-classical building. One passes through three arches to a small porch. Upon entering, one finds oneself in a hexagonal room with gray walls, gray carpeting, and grayish-blue conference room style chairs arranged in a gentle curve facing a platform. There is a projection screen on the back wall.
Judging by their purpose statement and core beliefs as set out on their website, they appear to be what you might call "fundamentalism for thinking folk." Rather than quote examples, I'll leave it to the reader to browse and draw conclusions. Activity-wise, they sponsor a series of community groups that meet in various parts of the Phoenix metropolitan area, usually in people's homes, (quoting from their website) "for more personalized spiritual growth [and] a time of prayer, learning from God's word, accountability, and fellowship." They also conduct a number of activities in the South Phoenix area, a primarily black and Latino neighborhood that some would call a ghetto. These include Bible study, prayer groups, field trips for children, and a community garden. They put on a series of radio broadcasts and podcasts called Urban Theologian Radio that (quoting from their About statement) "covers theology, faith and culture with a fresh urban slant to equip believers for on-the-go evangelism to better defend, explain, and understand the historic Christian faith."
They are located at Roosevelt Street and First Street in downtown Phoenix, the so-called Roosevelt Row. One of Phoenix's original neighborhoods, the area was once an architectural wonderland of houses ranging from simple bungalows to posh villas, all served by a thriving business community. But as the 20th century passed its halfway mark, an expanding freeway network caused many historic neighborhoods to be bulldozed away. The Roosevelt district became a ghost town of crack houses and boarded-up businesses until discovered by the artistic set. Today, RoRo (as those in the know call it) has been transformed into an eclectic collection of restaurants, night clubs, art galleries and new housing alongside lovingly restored examples of Phoenix's original housing stock. Unfortunately the bulldozer has taken its toll on the area where the church is located, leaving behind nondescript boxy night clubs and restaurants and new unremarkable high-rise apartment buildings.
The service was opened by Scott Rose Jr, pastoral resident for family ministries. John H. Talley III, pastoral resident for community groups and college ministry, preached. Tina Estes, music director, presided at the digital keyboard and led the worship band.
What was the name of the service?Worship Service.
How full was the building?
I counted about 250 chairs. There were about 100 people present as the service began, but by the time the music portion was finished, the place was about two-thirds full. A young to middle aged crowd, lots of young children.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Not at the door. There were groups of people milling about on the porch, but I entered without being noticed. Once I was seated, a gentleman who I think was Bob Korljan, pastor for teaching and church membership, shook my hand and said, "Hi. Im Bob. Welcome. Glad you're here." And shortly after that, another gentleman who I think was Isiah Oakes, pastor for visitation and counseling, also shook my hand and said hello. Otherwise no one paid me any attention.
Was your pew comfortable?
The chair was comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A lot of noise coming from the porch. Lots of children running around. Lots of greeting one another as people came in - this is clearly a congregation where everybody knows everybody else, and if they don't know you, you're ignored. The keyboardist struck up a prelude using one of the noisiest, ugliest sounding stops on her digital instrument. Well, it cant get any worse, I thought to myself - but I was wrong!
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, Roosevelt."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, was in the seats. Words to the songs were projected.
What musical instruments were played?
Digital keyboard, acoustic guitar, saxophone. An electric bass guitar and a drum kit enclosed in the obligatory Plexiglas box went mercifully untouched. There were also two vocalists, plus the keyboardist sang.
Did anything distract you?
One young gentleman sported one of those haircuts that look like the barber got called away before he could finish the job.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Lots of clapping, arm raising, hallelujahs, amens, etc., but I wouldnt call it happy. Matthew 21:7-11 (Jesus enters Jerusalem) was read, but otherwise there was scant mention of it being Palm Sunday, although they do seem to have a busy Maundy Thursday and Good Friday planned. There were no palms blessed or distributed. The music was harsh, strident, repetitive, and downright dreadful. Just when I thought the keyboardist couldn't choose any more awful sounds, she managed to do so. I almost got up and went outside until it was over. I didn't notice anyone in the congregation singing.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The sermon was the one redeeming feature of the service, in my opinion, but it was way too long. Pastor Talley's manner was lively and vibrant in the old revival meeting style. If he had been holding a Bible, he would have thumped it. His volume ran the gamut from shout to whisper, and he frequently asked the congregation to give him an Amen or some other word.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
His text was Genesis 3:1-24 (man's disobedience in the Garden of Eden). The story unfolds like a movie, and movies are great at telling stories. There's always a protagonist ("Somebody say protagonist") and an antagonist. Something good always starts to go bad ("Somebody give me an Amen"). In the Genesis story, Adam and Eve's good life started to go bad when Eve allowed the serpent to insert doubt and half-truths into her thoughts. Sin is always desirable and pleasurable to the eye, but there are always consequences ("Somebody say consequences"). Sin falls short of God's standards and attracts others to itself. We try to cover it up and point the finger of blame, as Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent. But we can't hide from God. Sin corrupts all of creation. Why do you think today's world is so full of natural disasters, disease, war, famine, human exploitation? But God can fix it - he doesn't give up on creation. If Adam and Eve hadn't sinned, Jesus would not have had to come into this world and die for our sin. Trust in God - he knows best. His Word is sufficient.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Just about everything else. If I had to choose one thing, it would be this: As the collection was being taken up, we were reminded of the story of the widow's mite (Luke 21:1-4) and that Jesus was watching us as we deposited our gifts. I wondered if a sudden bolt of lightning was going to disintegrate my Mystery Worship calling card as I put it in the basket.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
When the music started up again after the sermon, I beat a hasty exit, as did several other people.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee was available from urns on the porch before the service, but I didn't sample it then and I didn't notice if they were still there as I left.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
0 – No blessed way. The preaching was good, but the in-crowd does not seem welcoming to strangers and the music is - let's face it - just bad!
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 gentleman with the unfinished haircut.