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2637: Phoenix Laestadian Lutheran, Cave Creek, Arizona, USA
Phoenix Laestadian Lutheran, Cave Creek, AZ (Exterior)
Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwythe.
The church: Phoenix Laestadian Lutheran, Cave Creek, Arizona, USA.
Denomination: Laestadian Lutheran Church. The Laestadian revivalist movement among Lutherans was begun in Lapland in 1844 by pastor Lars Levi Laestadius as a reaction to the alcoholism rampant at the time. In North America the movement has seen much dissention and schism. The Laestadian Lutheran Church, one of the largest of about 15 branches active today, consists of several dozen member congregations in the United States and Canada, primarily in Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Washington and Saskatchewan. Laestadian Lutherans believe in lay confession of sins, avoidance of worldliness (dancing, card-playing, cinema, television, etc.), abstinence from alcohol except in holy communion, the sinfulness of contraception, and other fundamentalist practices.
The building: The congregation met at first in private homes, but after (quoting from their website) "the heresy of 1973" the need for a permanent church structure to accommodate growth became apparent. The present church was completed in 1988. It is a plain, stark building, joined to a matching parish hall like conjoined twins. The inside is also plain and triangular, with beige walls and ceiling and green carpeting. A wooden altar stood at the apex of the triangle, backed by a large cross. Christmas trees stood on either side, along with the United States flag and the Arizona state flag.
The church: They work closely with "sister organizations" around the world that include groups in Finland, Sweden, West Africa and Ecuador. Laestadian Lutherans believe in providing opportunities for socializing in a Godly atmosphere, although I could discover little about this congregationís ministries and programs other than that they offer Bible study and a Sunday school. Their website advertises for a family willing to host a Finnish exchange student this spring.
The neighborhood: Cave Creek, founded as a gold mining community in the late 19th century, is today a well-to-do suburb on the northeastern fringes of the Phoenix metropolitan area. Famous residents include one Ralph Hubert Barger, better known as Sonny Barger, founder and past president of the Oakland, California chapter of the notorious Hells Angels outlaw biker gang. Now in his late 70s, Barger has become an elder statesman of sorts, supporting local benevolent organizations and working to increase public awareness of motorcycle safety. The church sits at the end of an unpaved dead end street.
The cast: According to the rota published on their website, which rather cryptically lists only first names and last initials, Tyler A. was the service director, with Jane A. presiding at the organ.
The date & time: Christmas Eve, Tuesday, December 24, 2013, 3.00pm.

What was the name of the service?
Christmas Eve Service.

How full was the building?
I counted room for about 400 and it was two-thirds full. People appeared to sit as far back as they could; the front several rows were empty. All age groups were represented Ė lots of families with children. Everyone had a tall, lanky, blond Nordic look about them.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. No one was stationed at the door, and no service leaflets or other literature were available.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes Ė light colored wooden pew with red upholstery. We sat for the entire service.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Lots of visiting. A little old lady worked the room, wishing everyone Godís peace (the standard Laestadian greeting) and a merry Christmas.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Please turn to song 42." This was "Hark the herald angels sing" with some interesting word substitutions, e.g. "Universal nature say: Christ the Lord is born today" instead of "With angelic host proclaim: Christ is born in Bethlehem."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A hardbound hymnal entitled Songs and Hymns of Zion. Aside from the opening carol, the rest of the music was all based on Finnish folk songs with Christmas-themed texts.

What musical instruments were played?
An electronic organ, which sounded nice enough when Jane A. managed to hit the right notes, which thankfully was most (but not all) of the time.

Did anything distract you?
The results of disapproval of contraception were all too evident. The place was swarming with children of all shapes and sizes: infants in carriages, toddlers in arms, preschoolers running up and down the aisles, older children looking for ways to amuse themselves, teenagers looking studiously bored. The noise they all made was a major distraction.

Phoenix Laestadian Lutheran Cave Creek AZ (Interior)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
As stiff as a day-old corpse. After the opening carol, a prayer, and another song, Tyler A. sat himself down behind the altar and proceeded to mutter through another prayer, readings from scripture, and a sermon. Granted, he was elderly, and whatever oratorical powers he may have once possessed are long gone, but his funereal dirge-like monotone could barely be heard, especially over the symphony of babbling youngsters.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
25 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
0 – Tyler A.'s content (what I could make out of it) wasnít all that bad, but he made no effort to engage anyone in the congregation. He appeared to lose the children almost immediately, and most of the adults by sermonís end, although he seemed blissfully ignorant of that fact.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
With Christmas, Godís promises are fulfilled that were foretold by the prophets years before. God chose shepherds to bring the news to the world, but the world did not understand. Godís promises are still alive today, and we too must go into the world to spread the news. When people believe, the Holy Spirit will enter their hearts. We must continue to believe.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I found the Finnish folk song-based hymns engaging, with catchy little twists of melody and unexpected harmonic progressions.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Oh, that Tyler A!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After a final prayer and hymn, everyone just got up and left. A gentleman sitting in front of me turned and gave me a sort of embarrassed half-smile, as if he wanted to say something but thought the better of it. People seemed scandalized by my indulging in the worldly act of snapping a photo of the sanctuary. Another gentleman did shake my hand and introduce himself, but everyone else appeared oblivious of me.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Lots of visiting out on the patio, with people standing around in groups, but no refreshments. As mentioned, no one took any notice of me.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
0 – I have to confess that I found some of the young Nordic types in the congregation interesting in a way of which Lars Levi Laestadius would definitely not have approved, but thatís no basis for deciding whether or not to join a congregation. I would imagine that if I got to know some of these people, I would enjoy their company in a clean-scrubbed, non-recreational-beverage sort of way, but Iím neither of Nordic heritage nor of fundamentalist Lutheran beliefs.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Iím afraid I have to say no. Tyler A.'s delivery seemed completely devoid of the joy of Christmas.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The Finnish folk-song hymns. I found myself humming one of them in the car all the way home.
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