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2708: Asbury United Methodist, Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Asbury UMC, Phoenix, AZ (Cupcake)
Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwythe.
The church: Asbury United Methodist, Phoenix, Arizona, USA.
Denomination: United Methodist Church.
The building: It is known as the Cupcake Church due to the unique design of a chapel on the grounds (I actually think it looks more like a soufflé), the work of Phoenix architect Mel Ensign, known for his eccentric renderings of schools and churches. The main sanctuary is in a separate building behind the Cupcake, with classroom wings attached. Its interior is a plain rectangular cinderblock room, with chairs set up to face lengthwise. There was a communion table laden with what looked like packages of socks (indeed, an announcement was made thanking people for their donations to the sock drive).
The church: An inclusive and affirming congregation, their slogan is "a place for all people." Their drama ministry, whose goal is (quoting from their website) "to explore our creativity, build esteem and have fun," puts on a theatrical performance once each year as well as skits, dramatic readings and short plays at various worship services. In addition to the Sunday morning service, they have a Saturday evening service called The Alternative, where youth and young adults can "get to know each other and share a meal, and along the way have some fun and fellowship."
The neighborhood: The church is located at 16th Avenue on Indian School Road, a major east-west thoroughfare. Working-class single-family homes make up most of the landscape.
The cast: They are currently in an interregnum. A gentleman named Pete gave the greeting and read the scripture lesson. Another gentleman named Sergio preached and led the communion service. Pam Morita, music director, played the piano.
The date & time: Sunday, June 22, 2014, 9.30am – although it didn’t get underway until 9.45.

What was the name of the service?
Sunday Worship.

How full was the building?
I counted 18 people, not including musicians. Mostly women, one of whom I’m pretty sure was transgender judging by vocal pitch. I thought it was a shame that with that small a congregation, they didn’t use the Cupcake chapel instead of the main sanctuary – I had really hoped to see the inside of it.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No, not at the door. Only Pete and Sergio said hello once I had settled in my seat.

Was your pew comfortable?
Upholstered chairs – comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There were only three or four people in the room at first, listening to the musicians as they practiced. There was quite a bit of bustling about trying to get the PowerPoint to work correctly. As more people came in, there was the usual greeting and visiting. However, as I mentioned, only Pete and Sergio took any notice of me.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning. Welcome to Asbury United Methodist Church."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Most people had a service leaflet but I wasn’t sure where they had gotten it from; I didn’t see any at the door. But everything was projected via PowerPoint (once they got it working).

What musical instruments were played?
Grand piano, somewhat out of tune but well played. There was a choir of four ladies and one gentleman.

Did anything distract you?
The sound system favored bass and mid-range at the expense of treble, which made it hard to understand what people were saying. Also, there was quite a bit of applause – for most of the hymns and even for the sermon! And they never quite got the PowerPoint to work properly – there was a lot of flipping back and forth between slides until the right ones were found.

Asbury UMC, Phoenix, AZ (Sanctuary)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A hymn sandwich. Participation was active but not happy clappy. The pianist played softly under most of the prayers and readings. With the exception of the Lord's Prayer, I can't recall having previously encountered the wording of the prayers – I suspect they were home grown. We sat for just about everything except one song after the sermon and the post-communion prayer. Communion was in the form of a large loaf, off which we each broke a piece and dipped it in a ceramic cup of grape juice.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
29 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – I thought that Sergio’s basic message was OK but he rambled on quite a bit about his personal life, although he did manage to tie it in somewhat. Had he stayed more on topic he could have cut the time in half.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Life can be tough, but we are called to be disciples of Christ. We can turn to our families for comfort, but we are called to broaden our relationships outside the family. We must die to the life we know and live in Christ – this is very hard to do. But we must let go and trust God. We must share our lives with others – teach others, and learn from them. Sometimes we tend to demonize those who are different from us, but we are all members of the same family – we are all children of God.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
At communion, Sergio said: "This is an open table – come! Come and taste and see that Christ is good." That was a heavenly invitation, I thought.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The music sounded like a mix of nursery rhyme jingles and Broadway favorites. I had never before heard anything quite like these songs. The only hymn I recognized – "How Great Thou Art" – was sung by the choir as if every note had a staccato mark over it: artless, undisciplined singing.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Everybody sort of gathered in small groups for visiting. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I noticed unopened boxes of donuts set out on a table, but I scurried right past them.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
0 – No way. The congregation seemed to be enjoying themselves, and I don’t begrudge them their satisfaction, but such an informal, undisciplined style of worship is not for me.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I am glad to be a Christian, but not because of this service.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Not getting to see the inside of the Cupcake.
 
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