Mystery Worshipper: Sabbath-Man
Church: Westminster Presbyterian
Location: Des Moines, Iowa, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 6 May 2007, 11:00am
A large Gothic-inspired church with a rather austere interior. The communion table sits in the center of the sanctuary, with a pulpit to the left. At the head of the center aisle is the baptismal font. An impressive pipe organ occupies the wall behind the chancel.
Westminster holds a place of prominence among the mainline churches of Des Moines. They sponsor several ministries and outreaches and are known for promoting the arts as well as for their open and affirming position toward gays.
Des Moines was founded in 1843; several theories exist to account for the origin of its name. It is a modern, prosperous city, home to major insurance companies as well as financial and publishing firms. Westminster Presbyterian is in the Beaverdale neighborhood, one of the nicer historic districts. Volvos and BMWs abound.
The Revd Dr Ken Arontson, executive associate pastor, served as liturgist, and the Revd Amy Miracle, head pastor, preached. Both presided over the sacrament of holy communion. Two gentlemen identified as Steve Capp, youth club coordinator, and Dick Keifer, parish associate, read the scripture lessons and led a recognition of 50-year members, but I don't know who did which. The church directory lists Ruth Harris as organist and associate minister of music; I presume it was she who presided at the organ. A choir of 20 or so people processed during the opening hymn and sang an anthem early in the service.
What was the name of the service?50-Year Member Recognition.
How full was the building?
About half full. It was pouring rain outside in biblical proportions.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Four different people said "Hi" before worship. A fellowship folder was passed among us in the pews; I signed and passed it on.
Was your pew comfortable?
A very comfortable pew.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was rather a lot of sparse, empty silence prior to worship. No music was played until after the opening welcome and announcements, to serve as a buffer between these and "worship."
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"There's plenty of room up front!"
What books did the congregation use during the service?
We sang from the Presbyterian Hymnbook and used a worship bulletin for prayers, responses, etc.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
More curious than distracting. From a distance, the baptismal font looked odd and I never did figure out why. I was intrigued by a large tattoo peeking out from under the collar of a young man a few rows in front of me. I noted that while Westminster has plenty of retirees and empty-nesters, there is a noticeable presence of young adults and families with children.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very Presbyterian. Pretty formal, but not without humanity and humor. Regarding the 50-year member recognition: an insert in the worship bulletin had quite a list of names, but only two were specifically recognized in the service. It was my sense that others in the list would be recognized at different services on different days. Ken Arontson talked briefly about the two persons recognized that day and there was a brief prayer.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Pastor Miracle could very well have let the congregation pat itself on the back for its inclusivity, but instead she gently prodded them not to become complacent.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
She noted how the Acts of the Apostles makes it clear that the Gentiles were to be included in salvation. Many Jewish Christians feared that welcoming the Gentiles would lead to the loss of their own identity. Similarly, some fear that for Westminster to be serious about evangelism will mean the loss of their identity to something flashy and shallow. "We couldn't be flashy and shallow if we tried!" she said.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
As the service progressed, I realized that a gentleman sitting in the pew ahead of me was blind and had his seeing-eye dog at his feet. I like the fact that a dog was present at worship, but when I heard the blind man sing, "Great is thy faithfulness" and "Morning by morning new mercies I see," I was especially touched.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The sacrament of holy communion seemed – well – so uncommunal. As a visitor, I felt no connection with the others who communed, and no attempt was made to build even small, temporary bonds. For example, there was no passing of the peace, and the communion liturgy included little or no participation and few if any congregational responses. Am I being overly fussy to complain that the elements, bread and cup, were not even on the table during the eucharistic prayer, but instead were already being held by servers pre-positioned in the aisles?
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Two people nodded and smiled at me. At the back of the aisle, the pastor said, "Thanks for coming today."
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I didn't stay for coffee. I was running late and no one seemed particularly eager to invite me.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – This form of worship is very familiar and comfortable to me. But now that I've seen how it can look to an outsider, it struck me as rather impersonal, isolating and heady. I came away realizing how important relationships and connections are to worship. A rather average choir anthem is pleasing because you are friends with the people singing. If you don't know anyone in the choir, it is just an average anthem. I left wondering, "Is this how guests feel at the church I call home?"
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, despite my critiques. The Good News was proclaimed, the sacrament was shared, and people who remained strangers to me but are known by God gathered to worship.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
"We couldn't be flashy and superficial if we tried!" Mainline churches, are you listening? Fear of mega-churches doesn't a presence make.