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1860: Fair Oaks Presbyterian, Fair Oaks, California, USA
Fair Oaks Presbyterian, Fair Oaks, California, USA
Mystery Worshipper: Amazing Grace.
The church: Fair Oaks Presbyterian, Fair Oaks, California, USA.
Denomination: Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The EPC was formed in 1981 by pastors and elders objecting to what they considered to be "liberal" tendencies of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
The building: The grounds of Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church make up an eleven-acre campus, including a large auditorium-style worship space, large halls for social programs and the "alt" worship, and numerous education and program buildings. The worship space is like a theater, with plush pews, a balcony, and a vaulted wood ceiling. A communion table sits in front of a stage on which there is choir seating, enough room for a small symphony orchestra, and, on the back wall, the pipes of a magnificent organ. Above the stage is suspended a plain wooden cross.
The church: FOPC is a large program-sized church. The order of service was a single sheet tucked in a folding bulletin that details all the various programs (for children, youth, young adults, singles, families, men, women, seniors, recovery, etc.) and how to contact one of the 30 or so staff responsible for coordinating these programs. There are two worship services each Sunday, one traditional and one contemporary, plus three Bible study sessions. They belong to the New Wineskins Association of Churches, a conservative Presbyterian body.
The neighborhood: Fair Oaks is a former village and present suburb northeast of Sacramento. It is where the pancake flatness of California's great Central Valley gives way to the gradually steepening wedge that becomes the mighty Sierra Nevada ("snowy mountains" in Spanish). Suburban development started in earnest in the 1960s and boomed during the 1970s. The area used to be agricultural; today the only remnants of this heritage are the names of the small shopping centers (e.g. "Almond Orchard") near the church. The church itself is just outside of the village, off the main commercial strip, and is surrounded by ranch houses, well-kept townhouses and garden apartments, as well as other churches. The founders of FOPC had the foresight to buy property early on.
The cast: The Revd Kirk Bottomly, lead pastor, was in charge of the service. He was assisted by the Revd Cliff Graves, pastor for congregational care. The choir was under the direction of Lestelle Manley Nichols. There were also several lay readers, a troupe of actors, various musicians, and numerous engineers and technicians, all of whom were named in the program.
The date & time: Thursday, December 24, 2009, 8.00pm.

What was the name of the service?
Traditional Christmas Eve Service with Carols.

How full was the building?
The main floor and balcony were pretty much full (several hundred people), with very little downstairs seating available 15 minutes before start time (when I arrived). What few spaces there were filled in quickly.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was greeted warmly by the parking lot attendant (even though I didn't park in the lot, he saw me walking across the street), a greeter (who I learned later was the head usher), and the person who gave me the program.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes – padded with plenty of legroom.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Buzzing with anticipation and with friends exchanging Christmas greetings.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Merry Christmas, and welcome to Fair Oaks Presbyterian."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The pew racks had Bibles and hymnals in them, but everything was projected up on the large overhead projectors to the side of the chancel.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ, piano, brass quintet, hand bells, and flute. It was quite a joyful noise.

Fair Oaks Presbyterian, Fair Oaks, California, USA

Did anything distract you?
See below about "the other place."

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I'm not sure what kind of label I could put on it even if I wanted to. It was traditional in a lot of its feel, and I was amused and delighted to see that some of the structure looked very much like an Anglican lessons and carols service – lectors read the story of Jesus' birth, ending with John chapter 1 ("In the beginning was the Word"). But the church is very up to date and multimedia savvy, and the pastor has a very modern style and delivery. Thus, our carol service had the overhead projectors going, a dramatic skit, and a long Christmas meditation, erm, sermon, where the pastor said "wow" a lot, told funny stories and showed cartoons.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
27 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Pastor Bottomly was quite engaging in his delivery and used the OHPs to excellent effect, starting with Christmas humor cartoons to loosen the congregation up. I laughed so hard at some of them I started coughing. His remarks on the incarnation were sound. I won't, however, give him full marks because I know he could have wrapped it up sooner.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The Christmas gift of Jesus: the incarnation, the Word, God Almighty given to everybody.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
There was a brief visual meditation on the overhead projector that had some very beautiful traditional Nativity art, and during which the church was blessedly quiet. I also very much enjoyed the enthusiastic and generally tuneful carol singing.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
A dramatic skit (which had more of an Advent theme) was presented that included "Christmas miracles." One of these was snow. Sacramento may see snow about once every 10 years (this year happening to be one of those times). Since Fair Oaks is a wealthy and media-savvy congregation, they had snow-making machines blowing white flakes of something over the congregation's heads. I can see how this was dramatically important for the play, but having these noisy machines still going during both the scriptural reading and the first verse of "Silent Night" was just... so... completely... wrong! Way to miss the point, guys.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We were all cordially invited for hot cider (non-alcoholic) and cookies afterward, but I skedaddled off home to finish stuffing stockings and enjoy something a little stronger than cider. I'm also not big on huge crowd scenes, which this was.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It sounded like it was a fairly standard Protestant punch-and-cookies reception.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – This was, except for the overenthusiastic use of the snow machines, a wonderful worship service. The problem for me is that Fair Oaks is not an open and inclusive church. Indeed, there is some active work in the other direction, as evidenced by their affiliation with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and New Wineskins. I would not be comfortable giving my time, talent, and treasure to such a congregation. To me their conservative leanings are deeply incompatible with the gospel message.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Oh, yes.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Cartoons during the sermon and that darn snow-maker.
 
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