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271: The Community Church of Mill Valley, Mill Valley, California
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Community Church of Mill Valley, California
Mystery Worshipper: Discerning Disciple.
The church: The Community Church of Mill Valley, Mill Valley, California.
Denomination: United Church of Christ.
The building: Simple, rustic wooden structure that blends in nicely with the neighborhood. Despite many windows – which are clear, not stained-glass, the church is quite dark inside. The worship space seemed a bit dreary because of this.
The neighbourhood: Mill Valley is a town of about 14,000 people. It is one of the loveliest spots in Marin County. Once you leave the small downtown area, you feel like you are out in the woods. Beautiful redwoods, mosses, brooks and fern dominate the landscape – truly a little piece of heaven on earth.
The cast: Pastor, Pam Shortridge. Organist, Fred Marett. There was a woman who served as a prayer leader/lector whose name I didn't obtain.
What was the name of the service?
Sunday Worship.

How full was the building?
Not very – approximately 60 people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
As I walked up the pathway leading into the church, every person I passed, except one man dressed in a choir robe, said good morning to me with a glowing smile. Once I arrived at the church door, the official greeters handed me a program and again warmly welcomed me.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, the pews had cushions. The pews where not fastened to the floor and every time I re-adjusted my sitting posture, I seemed to move the bench forward with me. This was a little disconcerting.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Noisy. There was lots of talk at the entrance to the worship space. Not a place to hope to meditate before the start of the service.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
The Pastor said: "Good morning, everyone is a little sleepy this morning. Welcome to our Sunday Worship Service."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
New Century Hymnal, RSV Bible.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ and piano.

Did anything distract you?
An usher removed cords from the pews well after the service began. I was a bit puzzled why this was going on because there were plenty of open pews.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Relaxed, sincere and personal. However, sometimes too much of a good thing can turn into a negative. It was perhaps a bit too personal – so much so that I felt like I was on the outside looking in. This is a tight, small congregation in which everyone knows each other. For example, during a segment billed as the Childrens Story, the pastor asked one child how Australia was and carried on a conversation with the child about the trip. I thought we had skipped to the after-service coffee hour. I felt like an outsider listening to conversation among the "in crowd". Worship for me is always inclusive, but this felt exclusive to me.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
About 20 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – Very warm and personal. She walked into the center aisle and made eye contact. While this was effective, she tended to look at the same few people in the front. She could have been more engaging if she had looked beyond the people closest to her. Her microphone had a slight buzz that was a bit distracting. The space was small enough not to really require amplification.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
She spoke on the Gospel reading: Mark 10:17-31, the story of the rich man. I was intrigued as to how the pastor would address this story, as I assumed her congregation was extremely wealthy. (The median price of a home in 1998 in Mill Valley was $450,000 – must be well into the $800,000 to $900,00 range now.) I was impressed with her discussion, as she spoke very honestly. She stated that as followers of Jesus we are called to give up self-sufficiency and status to become part of a community. Jesus challenges us to identify with the least among us. She stated point-blank that everyone in this community is among the privileged. She said very calmly and clearly at the end that what Jesus asks from us, most of us decline. I give her a 10+ for her courage!

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
That honest, fearless sermon.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Before the service began – right in the worship space – a choir member decided to get in a last minute practice. Seems the choir was anxious about singing one particular hymn that morning – the Pastor made reference to this before we all gave it a go. The manner in which the choir member rehearsed the hymn was most annoying. Rather than singing the words, he sang, "Bomp, bomp, bomp..." on each note. He went on for a good 10 minutes bomping the hymn. It was quiet nervewracking.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Didn't have a chance to hang around or look lost. I was snagged instantly by a kindly woman as I sat putting my hymnal away. "Would you like a cup of coffee, dear," she asked.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The coffee was a lovely, rich blend, and nice and hot. The coffee was served in real cups, no plastic here. I didnt see anything to eat.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3. In spite of the warm environment and good preaching, I need a church that celebrates the eucharist. This type of worship just doesnt feed me on the same level.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I came away with a bitter-sweet feeling. So many of us who claim to be followers of Christ remain on the periphery. Most of us don't have the guts to live the counter-culture lifestyle to which Jesus calls us. The reality of this weighed on my heart all day.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The courage of the pastor will definitely stick to my ribs.
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