West Edmonton Christian Assembly, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

West Edmonton Christian Assembly, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

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Mystery Worshipper: Blender
Church: West Edmonton Christian Assembly
Location: Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Date of visit: Sunday, 12 November 2006, 10:45am

The building

WECA is a sprawling, whitewashed concrete jumbo jet of a building that's happened to emergency-land beside one of Edmonton's recently developed suburbs. Two adjacent wings are connected via a series of four stark, surrealistic, angular arches, one inside another, framing the main doors. Next door to the main auditorium, an equally expansive Community Life Centre is on its way up, featuring a youth hangout, a Starbucks-type coffee outlet and an auditorium for community use. With this new facility, the congregation hopes to connect with neighbouring communities through purpose-driven programs.

The church

This mega-church is on the march, ready to transport born-again souls into a world of creation science, Bible-based certainty and a bapticostal form of worship. They conduct a number of programs for children, youth, young adults, the early middle-aged, the late middle-aged (including a bowling league), men, women, etc., all of which are described on their website.

The neighborhood

In Edmonton, as in most of western Canada, a housing boom is on as the big oil-driven economy is creating jobs. Down the street from the church you can apply for a job at the local convenience store and receive a $700 signing bonus. The church is surrounded on all sides by newly built single-family homes that appeal to middle-class young families, as well as condos for those, as WECA calls them, "west of 50."

The cast

Pastor Glenn Patrick led the service, ably assisted by a group of talented but unidentified musicians and singers dressed in uniform-like outfits that reflect the church's values: black and white.

What was the name of the service?

Worship Service.

How full was the building?

By the end of the carefully choreographed 90 minute service, the 1100 seat auditorium was about three-quarters full. But these laid back Pentecostals aren't big on punctuality – at the advertised starting time of 10.45 the place was less than a third full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No less than three officially designated greeters eagerly extended their hands. Mrs Blender has an aversion to shaking hands and was somewhat taken aback by so much hospitality. More handshaking followed during the service, but there was no recognition that we were new or special in any way. It made me somewhat envious of the treatment the star character in the film Borat received when he visited a Pentecostal camp meeting and tongue-spoke his way to a new relationship with Mr Jesus.

Was your pew comfortable?

About as comfortable as they get. Mrs Blender particularly appreciated the padded chairs with a handy foot rest on the back. Of course, we stood for large swaths of the worship time.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Sparsely populated, relaxed, chatty. People entered sipping coffee from steel thermos cups; they all looked as if they were happy. A continuous PowerPoint kept us informed of such events as a men's breakfast at 8.00 on an upcoming morning (I guess men aren't allowed to sleep in), a "snack and yack" for the young adults, and bowling for the west of 50 group. The latter was illustrated by a picture of an older man on a beach raising his hands. What's bowling got to do with the beach?

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning. This is a great day." Indeed, in Edmonton, a frosty, snow-covered -20 degrees celsius is a great day. At least it wasn't -40 degrees!

What books did the congregation use during the service?

No books. PowerPoint slides projected on the walls led the way. There was a sermon notes handout. Pastor Glenn appears to be an avid reader – he helpfully listed all the books and authors he would refer to in his sermon.

What musical instruments were played?

A rock band – piano, guitar, bass and drums. The group wasn't visible from where we sat, but had us creatively moving in a minimalist, shuffly sort of way. There was also a choir of 31 voices. At one point (see the part below about the heavenly bits) we were treated to a 10-voice visiting choir from the Women's Dream Centre, a refuge for women who have been in abusive situations or involved with drugs and are getting their lives cleaned up with Jesus.

Did anything distract you?

You have to feel sorry for young moms. Just as we began to get into a bluesier song that touched on pain and brokenness, up pops the number 79 on the wall-mounted LED display, indicating that someone's baby needed attention in the nursery. A mother trudged past three 30-something women who were weeping, arm in arm in arm. Other distractions included strong perfumes, interminable announcements, and a PowerPoint alert that a silver Acura had left its lights on.

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

Our crew-cutted, unnamed but talented worship leader led us through pleasant choruses and uttered basic prayers between the up-tempo songs. "Take a deep breath," he said. "God gave that to you." He made a classic attempt to encourage the congregation to engage in the musical equivalent of speaking in tongues, otherwise known as singing in the spirit, but it failed to take full-throated flight. We heard just a faint baritone hum from the back, along with a few lip-smacking utterances of "Yes, Jesus!" During one number with taped accompaniment, I heard a weird organ crescendo that sounded like a pig being threaded through a meat grinder. Clapping was persistent and a few arms were raised toward heaven. It was Remembrance Day, and so, accompanied by music from the film Titanic and a reading that began with the words: "Back when truth was real and men would march..." there was read out a tribute to our soldiers, the 60,000 Canadians who perished in World War I, the 42,000 in World War II, and the 40 and counting in Afghanistan. This was followed by a minute of silence, during which the pastor jumped up to move his pulpit to centre stage. (One wonders why he couldn't have waited until the minute of silence had passed.) The service closed with the pastor praying that God would protect us in the parking lot.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

28 minutes – about 15 minutes too long!

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

4 – Pastor Glenn looked too young to be pastor of such a large church – picture the actor Rob Lowe wearing a double-breasted Miami Vice suit with a pale blue T-shirt underneath. They don't sell those at Wal-Mart! He treated us to ponderous kindergarten material, joking about putting his wife on a cell phone plan because she's chatty. At one point he noted that Jesus taught outdoors – "Nothing makes me feel closer to God than being outside." Halfway through the sermon I felt the same way.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The sermon title – "The road best travelled: Exposing the one-size-fits-all myth" – sounded intriguing. Pastor Glenn "exposed the myth" that all must relate to God in the same way, saying some are bent differently, feeling more comfortable to worship either with mind or heart, in nature, with friends, or contemplatively. I was cheered by the move, but soon he began to draw the boundaries. The New Age movement (whatever that is) and environmentalists have got it wrong with their tolerance and tree-hugging. Further, the church website makes it clear that homosexual practice is regarded as spiritual disobedience. During his talk he mentioned Henri Nouwen, the Roman Catholic priest noted for his work among people with developmental disabilities and a prolific author. But does Pastor Glenn know that Father Nouwen was not only supportive of homosexuals but was gay himself? Would he be welcome at WECA were he still alive? The pastor concluded by praying: "Forgive us when we judge and stand on our soapbox. Thank God for diversity." Too bad the diversity evidenced by this sermon was a very narrow one indeed.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Admirably, WECA supports the Women's Dream Centre, and the visiting choir from the Centre sang most heavenly. They were accompanied by an enthusiastic Norah Jones-like woman on the piano. As they sang "To the river I am going, come and cleanse me, Lord; I need to meet you there," the Norah Jones figure shouted out, "Sing it one more time! Come on, praise Jesus! Sing it!" Sustained applause followed.

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

The occasional references in Pastor Glenn's sermon that reinforce the walls between church and world. And the stereotypical "Father Knows Best" attitude he displayed.

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

There were so many people in the foyer, we could have streaked and wouldn't have been noticed. (Well, they may have noticed Mrs Blender.) This is clearly a close-knit and exuberant group. Pastor Glenn had parked himself at the door but was surrounded by his fans and thus inaccessible by the likes of us.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

No coffee was offered. Or we couldn't see it through the throngs.

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

3 – Maybe for worship, but not for the preaching.

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

No. This service didn't make me glad to be a Christian. Instead, it made me hungry for a church that at least attempts to engage with the world and its troubling issues (Afghanistan, Iraq, Ted Haggard). I want to learn how faith interacts with these sticky situations.

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

Pastor Glenn's suit and T-shirt. I've just got to get me some the next time I'm down at the casino gift shop.

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