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2695: North Valley Free Will Baptist, Phoenix, Arizona, USA
North Valley FWB, Phoenix, AZ (Exterior)
Mystery Worshipper: Old Rackensack.
The church: North Valley Free Will Baptist, Phoenix, Arizona, USA.
Denomination: Free Will Baptist. The Free Will Baptist Church came about from a merger of two traditions that flourished in the American colonies in the 18th century. The denomination is so common in the southeastern United States that the letters "FWB" on a church’s signboard are enough to identify it to passers-by. Unlike other evangelicals who believe that a Christian, once saved, is saved for eternity, Free Will Baptists believe that even though saved, one can still "backslide" into damnation through sinful living – "make shipwreck of his faith and be lost," quoting from their website (I love that phrase).
The building: A plain cinderblock building. The inside is also plain but comfy, with white and rose walls, rose chairs and carpeting. An upright piano stood to the left of a lectern, and an electronic organ to the right. The platform was decorated with artificial plants and a large cross.
The church: They sponsor a number of groups for folks of all ages, from one leg out of the cradle to one foot in the grave. Their menís group is called Masterís Men, which admittedly caused me to do a double-take. Special mention goes to their teenagersí group, called Teens After God, or TAG, which has just launched a study series called "I donít have enough faith to be an atheist."
The neighborhood: The church is located on North 20th Street near Union Hills Drive, northeast of downtown Phoenix Ė a decidedly plebeian residential area featuring what are euphemistically called manufactured homes Ė i.e., house trailers more or less permanently set on foundations.
The cast: The Revd George Harvey, Jr, pastor. The song leader and pianist were not named.
The date & time: Sunday, May 18, 2014, 10:45am.

What was the name of the service?
Adult Worship.

How full was the building?
I counted room for 200, and there were about 50 present Ė mainly elderly couples, some young families. I think I saw two teenagers.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A gentleman handing out bulletins said hello. No sooner had I got inside when another gentleman, who turned out to be the pastor, came up to me and said, "You must be the one who was taking pictures." We had a short chat, and he asked me to fill out a visitorís card Ė which I did, although Iíll admit to giving a false name and address. Once seated, I was approached by several people who introduced themselves and welcomed me.

Was your pew comfortable?
Comfortable upholstered chair.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Lots of visiting among friends. The pianist played a short medley of hymns.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning. Weíll start with song number 290."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Free Will Baptist Hymn Book: Rejoice. Opening the book at random, I was surprised to see one of my favorite folk songs, the well-known Appalachian folk hymn "I wonder as I wander" in the transcription made by balladeer John Jacob Niles. This turned out to be prophetic, as the above-mentioned song number 290 as well as most of the other music was in the Bible-thumping, revival tent rocking, bluegrass folk style.

What musical instruments were played?
Piano Ė played well, but it was not quite in tune. Nor, Iím afraid, did the song leader sing with what could be deemed a trained voice.

Did anything distract you?
I found the folksy style of music distracting. Imagine my surprise, though, to hear one of the hymns sung to the familiar tune Hyfrydol Ė but not with the familiar words "Alleluia, sing to Jesus," but rather with "Jesus, what a friend for sinners." Even the song leader seemed surprised at the text. And during the pastor's sermon, I kept wondering what Judith had to do with the passion of Christ until I realized that he was saying Judas, not Judith. I don't know if it was my ears, or the pastor's teeth, or a combination of both that caused my confusion.

North Valley FWB, Phoenix, AZ (Interior)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A hymn sandwich with lots of music, lots of prayers, lots of announcements. Not happy-clappy, but very informal. Free Will Baptists practice open communion and foot washing, but neither was included in todayís service. During the sermon there was lots of head nodding, "Yes," "That's right" and "Amen" coming from the congregation.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
39 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The pastor spoke with a Southern accent that was delightful to hear. He spoke as if he were addressing each one present personally Ė indeed, he included some personal remarks such as, "Have you ever wondered how things would have turned out had you done something differently? I know I have Ė you too, Beth, and I know you have, Ed." His sermon was well organized and well delivered, but I think he could have made his point in half the time just as effectively.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
His text was Acts 1:15-20, 25 (Peter speaks of the fate of Judas). We sometimes make decisions that turn out to be wrong. Judas knew that he had done the wrong thing by betraying Jesus. He led others to Jesus so that they might arrest him. But what if he had instead led others to Jesus so that they might be saved? We would be honoring him today as a great saint, not reviling him as a traitor. Judas had the same opportunity as did the other disciples to do Godís will. He could have lived out his life to the fullest instead of taking it by his own hand. God wants us to have an abundant life, not a life of failure. The problem is, we insist on going our own way, not Godís way. We canít change history, but we are writing our own history at this very moment. Weíll never know what might have happened had Judas acted differently, just as we canít know what tomorrow will bring. But we can be certain of one thing: Jesus will be with us tomorrow and always. When Christ is the center of our lives, we neednít worry about what might have been.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The friendly greeting I received was heavenly. And one of the prayers was for a member of the congregation who had suffered from a fever for over a month, but has now gone eight days without fever. It was heavenly that the congregation were giving thanks for his recovery.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
When the collection was taken up, I enclosed my Mystery Worship Calling Card in an envelope and put it in the plate. But instead of bringing the plates forward as is often done, the ushers retired out the back doors with the plates. I was sure they were opening the envelopes and counting the offering, and that one of them would burst through the doors at any moment demanding that I explain myself for having put not money, but the Calling Card, in the plate. I believe I was the only visitor, so surely they would know it was I who had done it.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The pastor ended his sermon with an altar call, and I was so bothered by the possibility of being "discovered" that I thought it best to slip out the back at that point.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I didnít stay, so I donít know if any was on offer.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 – The friendliness and sincerity of this congregation were encouraging, but I couldnít take a steady diet of folksy bluegrass music, John Jacob Niles notwithstanding. Also, Iíd miss a more structured liturgy.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Worrying over being "discovered" as the Mystery Worshipper.
 
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