|812: Charleston Baptist Temple, Charleston, West Virginia, USA|
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Mystery Worshipper: The Eccentric Ecclesiologist.
The church: As the name implies, this is the largest Baptist congregation in a town with a lot of Baptist congregations. Most Baptist churches in our area are independent, or associated with a smaller denomination. Many are much more conservative than this denomination. The congregation is very mission oriented and has a lot of outreach ministries.
Denomination: American Baptist.
The building: A landmark in the city, it has one of the tallest steeples and one of the most classic facades in town. Red brick with white-painted wood trim, the building looks the same as it did when I was a child 40 years ago. Walking through one of the sets of main doors, you find yourself in a large narthex separated from the nave by windows. "Quiet: worship service in progress" signs dampen the chatter in this transition area. The sanctuary is beautiful and bright. An off-white paint covers nearly everything from the pews to the communion table. A comfortable mixture of natural and artificial light illuminates the chancel and the first several rows of pews. Under the balcony, where I sat, lacked the natural light but the down-lighting was adequate. The choir loft behind the chancel is large, capable of holding three times the 25 or so that were present this morning. Behind the choir is an impressive array of organ pipes. The clergy and other worship leaders sat in front of the choir.
The neighbourhood: The church is located on the fringes of the downtown business district. The area used to be fully residential and has transitioned into its current state over a period of 50 years or more. The church was built in the middle of an affluent residential neighborhood in the early 20th century, but the stately old houses that used to house the pillars of the congregation now house law offices. I'd guess that more than 90 per cent of the congregation drive to church, where in the past I'm sure most walked.
The cast: Dr Dennis Johnson, senior minister, was the preacher and Rev. Archie Snedegar led part of the liturgy. Koreen Villers was listed as the person leading the "children's conversation" but the person who did that was a male and I'm pretty sure Koreen is a female. Wayne Eich is the minister of music.
What was the name of the service?
Lord's Day Worship.
How full was the building?
About one-third of the seats were filled on the main level. I could not see the balcony from where I was sitting.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I arrived a minute after 11.00am, and the prelude had already begun. The usher handed me a bulletin with a polite greeting, but I felt rushed to find a seat and he seemed to sense that. During the sharing of the peace I was very warmly greeted by several people, but nothing beyond a "Good morning! Good to see you."
Was your pew comfortable?
The pews were unpadded, and we sat for at least 50 minutes of the hour-long service. I was a little uncomfortable toward the end of the sermon.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Since I arrived a minute late, I really can't give an adequate description. During the prelude, though, people were quiet and reverent.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The liturgy began with, "Among the poor, among the proud, among the persecuted, among the privileged, Christ is coming with a healing word."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The hymnal, The Worshiping Church, was the only book. The scripture and liturgy were printed in the bulletin.
What musical instruments were played?
Just a pipe organ.
Did anything distract you?
The public address system had an echoing feedback when the preacher got loud. But I didn't even notice that until halfway through the sermon. A lot of attention has been paid to detail and that keeps the distractions to a minimum.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Not a peep was heard from the congregation at any time during the service except during the liturgy responses and during the peace. It was a very quiet worship service.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 The preacher content was excellent and delivery was very good, using some great quotes and illustrations. He was very careful to include explanations about personal illustrations, which made me feel included in the congregation, even though I was a stranger.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The word of God comes to us to heal us. When we take the Bible seriously it will have a transforming effect on our lives.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The choir's anthem. Even though there were only about 25 voices that morning, the volume and quality of their offering was astounding. They sang a Tchaikovsky arrangement of "Lo, a voice to heaven sounding," and I can't imagine any choir performing it better.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The children's sermon. Listed in the bulletin as "children's conversation", it was neither a conversation nor was it for children. The man who led this part of the service told a very touching story about a hymn that had been written by a friend of his who was sick. It was obvious that this story was important to him, but the children, most of whom looked to be under age seven, couldn't have grasped the message he was trying to impart (I'm not sure I understood it either).
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I stood in my pew for a while and got a few smiles, but no one said anything to me. The preacher stood at one of the exits and shook hands, but since I was undercover I chose another exit to the narthex. I stood in the narthex for five minutes or so and then I noticed that the bulk of the crowd was moving not through the doors to the outside but through a hallway. I thought perhaps this was the way to the coffee so I followed the crowd. But instead of a coffee reception I found myself heading outside through a different door. I exited into the parking lot and went back to my car.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
If there was coffee, I couldn't find it.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 The worship was very well done. The music was excellent. The preaching was good. Just not my cup of tea.
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 choir. They were just fantastic. Mr Eich and his choir should be commended for their commitment to excellence.