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||1255: First Baptist, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
Mystery Worshipper: Paltry thing.
The church: First Baptist, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
The building: The church building is a 1970s modern brick affair
attached to a high-rise apartment complex for senior citizens. It is neat
and inviting and unpretentious. You enter a narrow hallway, rather than
a narthex of any sort, and from there make your way into a warm, brick worship
space filled with glorious natural light (there's a skylight over the altar
area and four large plate glass windows set high on the liturgical west
wall.) Very nice worship space uplifting. It looks like they have salvaged
the pews from the older building that this one replaced.
The church: The ministries listed on their website indicate the usual:
a music program, Sunday school, a women's group, teen group, and various
mission fund raising events. The congregation is predominantly white and
gray-haired, although there were a few kids present for the children's story
before being dismissed for Sunday school. I noticed one woman who might
qualify as a "bag lady" she had her goods in a plastic shopping
bag and wore many, many layers of mismatched clothes and a bright yellow
toque (as we call it in Canada a knitted cap). She sat alone and didn't
join in the congregational singing.
The neighbourhood: Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, occupies
the southern tip of Vancouver Island and is for the most part a pleasant
city very popular with tourists. However, the area known as Cormorant Street,
immediately to the east of the church, is lined with cheap rooming houses
for university students and others too poor to live anywhere else. There
one can witness heroin addicts shooting up as well as overhear tawdry domestic
squabbles. The worship community at First Baptist was decidedly not
the Cormorant Street crowd.
The cast: The preacher and primary worship leader was the Rev. Dr
Axel Schoeber, senior pastor. A young woman named Nancy led the pre-worship
hymn sing, and a gentleman whose name I didn't catch led the children's
sermon. Mr Bob Kroeger served as organist and choir director and Elsie Coles
offered the solo.
The date & time: March 19, 2006, 11.00am.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
Comfortably full. I'd say there were upwards of 100 people in a space that
probably bulges at 150. There were enough people to feel anonymous if you
wanted but not so many that you felt lost in the crowd.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was met at the door by a woman named Meg, who invited me in very cheerfully.
As I signed the guest book, I chatted with someone named Nora. Both were
warm and hospitable. Nora gave me a small cloth rose to put on my shirt
to identify me as a visitor.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, the pews from the old building had been given padded cushions, making
them very user friendly. However, the pew I chose (one at the back) was
elevated on a small bleacher-like stand, and every time we stood for a hymn
my feet were drawn to the edge and I would teeter to and fro until I got
upright. I felt oddly constrained on this tiny dais, even though my view
of the pulpit was improved.
How would you describe the pre-service
Nancy, who led the pre-service hymns, sang several numbers to a guitar accompaniment,
thus creating a quiet and reflective atmostphere. Even though the words
to the hymns were printed in a separate pre-service bulletin, only a few
people sang here and there, creating a tiny buzz in the room. I felt I could
join the singing or just listen to the guitarist, as I wished. I listened
What were the exact opening words of the
"Good morning, everyone. Welcome to worship this morning. If you are
a guest, a double welcome to you."
What books did the congregation use during the
The Hymnal: For Worship and Celebration and a printed service bulletin.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, piano and guitar. The guitarist, as I mentioned, was understated
and very reverential. I enjoyed her gifts of music a lot. The organ was
absolutely awful: wooden, lifeless. Interestingly, the organist did double
duty as pianist, and on the piano he had a lovely light touch that was a
pleasure to hear. Recommendation? Ditch the organ altogether. The place
sings with the other instruments.
Did anything distract you?
The pastor spoke with a sing-song lilt to his voice. I got the impression
that he viewed the members of the congregation as a class of grade school
students (indeed, he had formerly been a schoolteacher). I'm sure he is
a lovely, devout man, but there was a smugness or self-satisfied tone to
his voice that wore thin pretty quickly.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
Mostly plodding. It was the type of service that one would expect 40 years
ago full of unexpanded theses and mindless repetition. The expression
"The blood of Jesus washes away your sins" must have been repeated
a hundred times I was at the point of screaming! Except for the children's
sermon, the choir anthem and the solo piece, I think the Spirit slipped
out of the place and went for coffee once the invocation prayer began.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 This is a hard one to judge in some respects. I think Paster Schoeber
has the potential for becoming a fine orator. He has a sense of rhetoric
and knows how to weave life and text together in such a way that 27 minutes
did not feel at all too long – and I'm one who gets bored after eight minutes,
so this is a compliment. But his sermon was utterly devoid of imagination.
Add the sing-song voice and I have to give him a 4.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
Betrayal. The pastor retold the text of Mark 14:43-52 (Judas betrays Jesus
at Gethsemane). The feelings of the various characters in the narrative
were examined, and hypothetical behind-the-scenes relationships were described.
He attempted to relate all this to contemporary experiences of betrayal,
concluding with the thought that Jesus is a faithful friend who stands by
us and we can take comfort in that. It all sounded wonderful, but what did
it mean? And then came an altar call: "If accepting Jesus into your
life is not a step you've taken, I urge you to do so now." The altar
call reminded me of a Christmas fruitcake – someone always trots one
out because it's expected, not because fruitcake would actually complement
the meal. It was at the altar call that I decided to lower my score from
5 to 4.
Which part of the service was like being in
Soaring miles above the otherwise plodding service were the simple guitar
at the beginning, Elsie Cole's musical solo, and the choir anthem. The music
was clearly chosen with care and enabled one to catch a glimpse of the great
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The pedantic organ playing, the humdrum service save for the music, and
a sermon that held my attention for 27 minutes without delivering any meaning.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I stood forever at the back of the worship space, making a fuss over gathering
up my coat and papers, while three small cliques of elderly ladies squeezed
by me to get out the door. Not a word of hello was said. Meg and Nora, who
had been so friendly when I came in, were nowhere to be found. Then a young
woman came up to me and chatted for a few moments, asking where I was from
and that sort of thing. It was Nancy the guitarist, whose music I had enjoyed
so much at the beginning. But she soon went on to talk to someone else,
so I joined the line waiting to greet the pastor. Just before I got to him,
he took a couple aside and began to speak to them earnestly. I glanced around
a bit more, trying to muster up enough courage to go downstairs for coffee.
Finally I sort of wandered outside, feeling most awkward.
How would you describe the after-service
Didn't get a chance to sample it. My nerve failed me before I made it downstairs.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 I think I would slowly suffocate here. Although the worship space
was lovely and the music really quite fine, I felt I would have to work
too hard to fit in to want to make the effort.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
I'm afraid I have to say no. I mean, I didn't feel bad or anything, I just
felt: who cares? There was no mystery here. No awe. No invitation to encounter
a living God. It was all glib emptiness, all mindless repetition.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Stepping out of such a drab experience into the glorious Victoria sunshine,
and how lovely Nancy's guitar playing had been – and the fact that she
alone spoke to me after worship.
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