Word of Life, Surprise, Arizona, USA

Word of Life, Surprise, Arizona, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Word of Life
Location: Surprise, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 5 October 2008, 8:15am

The building

A large modern building surrounded by trees on an otherwise barren plot of land. The interior is bright and airy, with cream colored walls and blue carpeting. On a raised platform sit a simple wooden communion table and pulpit, backed by a wall featuring a wooden cross. To the right are music stands and microphones, to the left a screen and projector.

The church

They hold two services each Sunday, one traditional and the other contemporary, plus a Wednesday sermon series. There are spiritual and social groups for youth, men and women. A parish school welcomes children from preschool through first grade.

The neighborhood

When plans were first laid to develop the far northwest corner of the Phoenix metropolitan area, people said that if such a remote region ever became a city, it would be a surprise. Today, the city of Surprise is one of the fastest growing communities in the area, the population having quintupled in the past ten years. The city is made up almost entirely of new single-family and condominium housing interspersed with modern shopping malls. There are also large expanses of vacant land within the city limits just waiting to be snatched up by developers. The Surprise Sports Complex is spring training home for the Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers baseball teams. The church sits on a largely undeveloped stretch of Bell Road, near White Tank Mountain Regional Park, a wilderness area noted for its petroglyphs, archaeological sites and exotic wildlife. Also close by are a Baptist church and a new Roman Catholic church still under construction.

The cast

The Revd Steven Cluver, pastor. Ms June Ruyle presided at the organ. Mr Frank Fox gave the readings.

What was the name of the service?

Traditional Service.

How full was the building?

I counted 100 chairs and they were all occupied save for a smattering. The congregation was comprised of a mix of all age groups.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

As I parked my car, the pastor was just arriving. When he saw me taking photos of the church, he came over and asked if I was a newcomer. We chatted a bit. Inside, a gentleman smiled and handed me a service leaflet. Another gentleman shook my hand. After I sat down, several people came up to me and welcomed me.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes - individual wooden chairs with cloth seats and backs.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

There was quite a bit of loud talking in the back of the church, but people quieted down once they were inside. The organist played a medley of familiar hymns, which just encouraged people in the back to talk louder.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning. Hey, its a great day!" We were then asked to shake hands with our neighbors.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

None. Hymns, readings and the order of service were included in the service leaflet.

What musical instruments were played?

An electronic organ, nicely voiced and competently played by Ms Ruyle, although she tended to favor the vibrato a bit too much and was a little abrupt on the swell pedal. There was also a small choir of mixed voices.

Did anything distract you?

Across the road from the church is the Happy Valley Adult RV Resort. I did a double-take on their sign, as at first glance I thought it read, Happy Valley Adultery Resort. Just before the service began, a tall, lanky gentleman entered wearing cowboy boots and jeans, and with the outline of a can of chewing tobacco clearly visible in his left back pocket.

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

A traditional conservative Lutheran service, as advertised. Pastor Cluver was vested in cassock-alb and green stole and wore a gold cross on a chain. There was no processional - the pastor simply walked in and sat down a moment or so before the beginning of the service. The hymns were all traditional, although words only were given in the service leaflet and some of the tunes were a tad unfamiliar. In the Nicene Creed we declared that we believe in one, holy, Christian and apostolic church. Communion was ministered in the form of traditional wafers and small plastic cups of either red wine or white grape juice. In true Lutheran fashion, everyone at the communion rail waited until everyone had consumed both species before returning to their seats.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

4 minutes (children's talk); 19 minutes (adult sermon).

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

8 – Pastor Cluver is one of those old-time preachers who speak loudly, then softly, and vary the speed of the delivery to emphasize points. All in all, his sermon was very effective, I thought.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

For the children's talk, he showed the children a bracelet he was wearing that consisted of black, red, white and green colored bands. He explained that the bands represented our sinful nature, Christ's redeeming act, God's forgiveness, and our growth in the Spirit, respectively. For the adult sermon, he paraphrased 2 Timothy 3 and 4. We live in troubled times, he said. We are anxious over what may happen. Is there hope? You bet there is! If we follow good example, study the Word of God, be serious about our commitment to Christianity, and keep in mind that heaven awaits us, we will know that God always wins, no matter what!

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

It was heavenly to think that a traditional service such as this, in a church that also offers a contemporary service, could attract a full house at 8.15 on a Sunday morning. The intercessions were based on requests that people wrote on cards collected by the ushers. One person asked that God may bless our next President, whoever it may be, and guide us to know who to vote for. Thats as political a statement as you'll ever hear in a Lutheran church, I guess.

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

The choir sang a sour, off-key anthem at the offertory that sounded like "My Old Kentucky Home." And after a highly unpleasant experience with my Mystery Worship calling card at another church, I was skittish about putting it in the collection plate. I ended up leaving it in the offering basket on the refreshment counter.

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

The closing hymn was "Stand up, stand up for Jesus," for which we were asked to remain seated! When that was done, the pastor made some announcements and then everyone left while the organist played a postlude. Some of the people who had greeted me earlier shook my hand again and said that they were glad I had come. The pastor told me that the church door would always be open for me.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Weak, flavorless coffee in styrofoam cups. Iced tea was also available, along with some cookies and cut-up donut pieces.

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

8 – I'm tempted. I liked the friendly greeting I received and I enjoyed the liturgy. Everyone seemed to take Christianity seriously without coming off as dour. I'd like a stronger music program, though.

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


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

"Stand up, stand up for Jesus" (please remain seated).

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