Shepherd of the Valley, Surprise, Arizona

Shepherd of the Valley, Surprise, Arizona, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Shepherd of the Valley
Location: Surprise, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 8 November 2009, 8:30am

The building

A rather austere modern stone building in a desert landscape setting. The interior is hexagonal in shape, with cream colored walls and blue carpeting. An eastward-facing altar sits against one of the walls, flanked by a lectern and pulpit. The altar was dressed with a green frontal and linen altar cloth; on it were a crucifix, two candles and two potted plants. The pews are angled in toward the altar. At the rear of the church are an electronic organ and two digital keyboards.

The church

They offer Christian education for all ages and sponsor a number of fellowship groups and Bible study classes. The pastoral staff conducts regular office hours. There is a Saturday evening worship service and two services each Sunday, with communion offered on the second and fourth weekend of each month.

The neighborhood

The church is located on Bell Road in Surprise, a northwestern suburb of Phoenix that has seen rapid growth over the past several years. Although there is still quite a bit of undeveloped land in this area, it is quickly being snatched up by builders of hotels, shopping centers and apartment communities. The Surprise Sports Complex, spring training home for the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals baseball teams, is just around the corner from the church. Sun Village, a large retirement enclave, is just next door.

The cast

The Revd John Sprain, pastor. Pastor Sprain wore a black Geneva gown which, he explained, was not his regular vestiture, but being that it was Judgment Day Sunday he thought it appropriate to dress like a judge.

What was the name of the service?

Worship Service.

How full was the building?

I counted room for about 150, and the church was about seven-eights full. There was a goodly mix of elderly people and younger couples, some with children in tow.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Several greeters shook my hand and wished me a good morning. One gave me a set of handouts as he did so.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes. The wooden pews were outfitted with red cushions.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

People sat quietly for the most part, studying the various sheets in the packet of handouts. There was quite a bit of noise coming from out in the vestibule, though.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning. Good to have you come here." This by Pastor Sprain.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Christian Worship and The Holy Bible, New International Version. The packet of handouts included an order of service, a sheet with the days readings, several music inserts, and an announcement sheet.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ - canned, a recording, despite the plethora of musical instruments scattered about. Whoever recorded the organ track made the mistake that pianists doubling as organists often do, thinking that overuse of 16-foot stops will compensate for lack of pedal technique. During a musical presentation by the Sunday school children, one of the teachers accompanied the children on a flute.

Did anything distract you?

A tall, lanky elderly gentleman in cowboy boots with gray hair, glasses, and a scowl permanently etched into his jowls reminded me of the late President Lyndon B. Johnson. Another elderly gentleman reminded me of the late great virtuoso concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz.

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

A conservative liturgy that followed the familiar Western pattern. The pastor made the Sign of the Cross over us at the absolution and again at the final blessing. We chanted the psalm to a psalm tone, complete with pointing and doxology at the end. We stood for the gospel and Apostles Creed (during which we said we believed in the Holy Christian Church). The pastor read the intercessions facing eastward, toward the altar, with his back to the congregation. There was no communion today.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

19 minutes.

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

7 – Pastor Sprain spoke easily and fluently, making good eye contact with the congregation and not looking down at notes. However, Im not sure I agree with one of his arguments - see below. The lights were dimmed for the sermon, giving it a theatrical appearance.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The term "last judgment day" makes us squirm! We will be required to stand and give an accounting of our life to God. These certainly seem like the end times - judgment day may be nearer than we think! But it should be a time of courage, faith, hope and joy. In Old Testament times only the high priest could approach God; the people were unworthy to do so because of sin. But Jesus, our high priest, has reconciled us to the Father. Salvation is a gift from God and cannot be earned. The devil, however, loves to make us think that good works are necessary for salvation. If we do good works, we do them out of love for Christ and because God wants us to. God is dead serious about saving us all, and he'll do whatever it takes, including separating us from evil.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

At the beginning of the service, after the confession and absolution but before the readings, the Sunday school children sang two numbers that were surprisingly good, all things considered. And they weren't applauded, thanks be to Jesus! One little boy, however, just stood with his hands in his pockets and didn't sing, as if he were wondering just what the devil he was doing there. Someone does need to tell them that civilized children don't slouch about with their hands in their pockets, although I'm not sure this belongs on the Sunday school curriculum.

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

I don't think I would dismiss the notion of good works as the wiles of the devil. And why the canned music?

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

After the blessing and final hymn, the pastor read the announcements and then played a video about the Lutheran school system and the Wisconsin Synod seminary, during which everyone sat perfectly attentive. Ushers then dismissed us row by row, with everyone waiting until it was their rows turn to get up. I had never seen that before.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Presentable but not great coffee in styrofoam cups; also some assorted fruit juices, cut-up Danish pastries, and some very nice raisin bread. The pastor spotted me as a newcomer and shook my hand, saying that if I ever wanted to sit down with him to discuss the church, hed be glad to oblige. Other than that, people stood around in groups visiting and no one paid me any attention. I looked for the Lyndon Johnson gentleman but didnt see him. I did spot the Vladimir Horowitz gentleman, but he was busy talking to friends and so I didnt disturb him.

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

6 – I would look for a stronger music program and communion every Sunday, but everything was done with order and dignity.

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

Yes. Everyone seemed committed to worship, and it was good to be a part of them.

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

Being dismissed row by row.

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