Dating from 1978, it is hard to describe. From the outside it looks like something a convention of architects would design after recounting to each other the wildest of their nightmares: a brick wall, out of which grows a cylinder pierced by a beam from which drops a cubical form fronted by a brick column supporting a crucifix. In fact, it is the work of Will Bruder Architects, known for their unique approach to imaginative yet functional architectural solutions. The interior is more attractive, with pews in a semicircle facing a platform. Tonight the platform was occupied solely by orchestra and choir. A Nativity crèche was to the right; pulpit and organ console to the left. The Advent candle stood in the center.
Quoting from their website, they offer ‘many opportunities to learn, grow, and give as disciples of Jesus Christ.’ Among these are Bible study, a quilting group, a card ministry that (again quoting from their website) ‘designs and makes cards to send to our church family,’ youth groups where kids can ‘have fun and learn how they belong in the Kingdom of God,’ and ministries to the homebound. There is one service each Sunday that is also live-streamed.
Scottsdale is an affluent suburb to the east of Phoenix. In contrast to the rest of the Phoenix metropolitan area, Scottsdale has a commercial sign ordinance that severely limits the size and contents of signs that businesses may display – the chief effect of which is to make it almost impossible to spot your destination from a fast moving car. Speaking of which, Scottsdale is also one of the few municipalities that still use cameras to catch speeders and red-light scofflaws. The church is located on Scottsdale Road south of Cactus Road, a primarily residential area, although a bit to the south can be found an array of upscale expensive strip malls.
The church’s lead pastor and pastor of congregational care, assisted by a variety of lay persons.
What was the name of the service?Christmas Eve Candlelight Service.
How full was the building?
About three-quarters to seven-eighths full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No, but I was a tad early.
Was your pew comfortable?
The padded pew was very comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
When I arrived, the orchestra and choir were rehearsing. The bulk of the congregation didn’t enter until the musicians had exited, and there was quite a bit of visiting, talking, etc. among them as they came in. The pianist played a quiet medley of Christmas music – but see below!
What were the exact opening words of the service?
A lector recited the poem ‘There Is Room’ by the Revd Sara Speed, the first two lines of which read, ‘I asked God – what about my fingernail-biting habit.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, The United Methodist Hymnal, and The Faith We Sing were in the pews, but everything we needed was projected. There were also three handouts: the order of service, an announcement sheet, and a sheet with Nativity drawings for children to color in (crayons were provided).
What musical instruments were played?
Piano and string quartet, augmented by flute, trumpet and tympani. An organist was listed in the order of service, but the organ remained silent. I couldn’t see the piano and couldn’t tell from the sound if it was a digital instrument or an acoustic piano amplified; I suspect the latter. There was also a choir of about a dozen or so elderly souls vested in purple robes with purple scapulars, with a grey border and the United Methodist Church logo embroidered on them. The orchestra was correctly attired in their concert blacks.
Did anything distract you?
The timpanist was wearing one of those dresses with sleeves that look like they’re torn at the shoulders and will fall off at any moment. The lead pastor, who preached, wore an alb and cincture – but he had tied the cincture crooked and one end dragged on the floor. Had he stepped on it, he would have been in for a surprise. And speaking of stepping on it – he wore white sneakers with green Nike logo. The pastor of congregational care, who gave the call to worship and led some of the prayers, was more sensibly attired in white Geneva gown and multicolored stole. I didn’t notice her shoes.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Not a bad hymn sandwich for Christmas Eve. It alternated between music, prayers, inspirational talks, scripture readings, and sermon. The music was all traditional Christmas carols. During the children’s talk, the gentleman giving the talk recounted the Nativity story and asked the congregation to make appropriate animal sounds whenever an animal was mentioned. During the talk, out came Joseph and Mary carrying what looked to be a real live infant, not a doll. The service ended with the obligatory singing of ‘Silent Night’ to candlelight.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 — I’m flipping all the cards because I really liked the lead pastor’s sermon and the way he presented it. I could almost forgive him his choice of footwear.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He began by relating how he had taken his young daughter to the supermarket to buy some fruit and juice for her class Christmas party at school. There was a very long line at the checkout, and the daughter asked if she could have a drink of some of the juice. The pastor told her to wait until they got home, whereupon out of frustration she threw a full-blown tantrum – screaming and rolling around on the dirty floor. A little old lady in line in front of them turned around and stared, but instead of scolding the girl, she told the pastor to go ahead of her in the line. She added that the gentleman in front of her – a burly construction worker – would surely let them get ahead of him as well – which he did! The world today is full of frustration, and aren’t we just weary of it all! We can’t escape the terrible things we hear on the news, the bad weather caused by climate change, and all the rest. Luke in his Gospel carefully laid the groundwork for the birth of Christ: Judea under the tyrannical rule of Rome, all the world ordered to pack up and go to their home towns to be taxed, a pregnant young teenage girl and her husband wandering the streets of a strange town all alone, looking for a place to spend the night but finding none. But it is in this very scene of frustration, of weariness, that God chose to make room for a miracle to happen. How can we make room in our world? We can open our hearts!
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I really did like the lead pastor’s sermon.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Where was the missing organist? We could have used a good solid organ to support the singing. The orchestra was too small to make enough sound, especially in the more bombastic carols – ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ and ‘Joy to the World’. And what about that lead pastor with his Nike sneakers and crooked cincture? But worst of all… the pianist’s quiet medley of Christmas music before the service was applauded, not only by the congregation but also by the choir! Every number separately! I was regretting that I had left my smelling salts at home. What is with this applause in church that seems to be reaching endemic proportions?
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I quietly slipped out during the obligatory ‘Silent Night’ by candlelight and before the final benediction and dismissal.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None was announced as being on offer, and I don’t think there was any, as another service would be coming in at 7.00 and they had to clear everybody out before then. Before arriving at church, I had managed to spot a McDonald’s from my fast moving car, and I treated myself to a Big Mac and fries before the service. After arriving home and filing my report, I treated myself to a dish of ice cream.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 — I don’t like Scottsdale and avoid going there unless I have to. But if I should find myself there some Sunday, I might be tempted to stop by and check out what one of their regular services is like. Provided the lead pastor has gone shopping for proper shoes, that is.
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 lead pastor’s attire.