Sunday, December 28, 2008

Fountain Park (Presbyterian) Church

Today we worshiped at Fountain Park (Presbyterian) Church, 8533 Peters Road, Cranberry Twp., PA 16066,

Bob’s thoughts:

The building is modern, a handicapped-accessible, one-story slab building without the trappings of a more traditional Presbyterian church, and there is incredible warmth. Beginning with people waving as we were parking and throughout the service we were warmly greeted.

Signage in the narthex is large and colorful, but only a small pedestal sign indicating the direction of the restrooms. It is a small but well laid out church building, so you wouldn’t have to look hard for anything. The Sanctuary is bright and airy and the lack of stained glass is easily offset by a window at the rear of the chancel with a pine tree right outside. There is a large wooden cross bearing a white lace drape with white mini-lights behind a crèche next to the chancel. Nearby is a table for prayer request cards, and I noticed some people in prayer in that area after the service.

The service was contemporary, with good acoustics due somewhat to the ceiling treatment. The chancel is just two steps and gives the feel of being more connected to the congregation. The oboe was an impressive addition to the praise songs. For a younger congregation I didn’t see the passion I expected in praise worship. There was a great response to the children’s sermon – it’s always great to hear responses from the youth. I really appreciated the graphics on the screen, and that the words were also projected on the rear wall. Often the praise team does not know when the wrong (or no) words are displayed.

The bulletin contained a diagram of the sermon which was filled in on-screen as the sermon developed. The Sanctuary is set up with padded folding chairs. There was coffee, etc. at the rear and café tables – very welcoming. The chancel was decorated with white poinsettias which gave me a feeling of peace and purity.

Mark has an excellent delivery with powerful inflection, and I believe God used him to bring me a personal message, a reassurance of hope of heaven.

The nursery and adjoining room have a window to the Sanctuary which could serve as a cry room. There were a lot of highlights in today’s worship, but I was especially impressed with the visitor information card that asked for input about what visitors liked and solicited suggestions for improvements. I felt connected in worship, and was blessed to be close enough to hear Lin’s voice in song.

Jan’s thoughts:

The building is much smaller than I expected – I was under the impression Fountain Park was more along the lines of Orchard Hill. The interior is nicely decorated (professionally, perhaps?) and we had no problem finding the restrooms, or anything else for that matter. Color schemes and designs were complementary, aesthetically pleasing, and inviting.

The new pastor and his wife, Mark and Lin Plumb, are good friends of ours from the Malawi Partnership, so we were greeted very warmly by people we already knew. Mark and Lin have been at Fountain Park since the beginning of December, and it seems like a wonderful fit. We were received cordially by people to whom Lin and Mark introduced us, and just as hospitably by others who were unaware of our association but recognized us as visitors.

The layout of the Sanctuary consisted of folding chairs toward the front, and behind were small round tables just the right size for three people to sit in folding chairs and still face the chancel. Coffee, tea, water, lemonade, and cookies were at the back of the Sanctuary and we were invited to enjoy refreshments during worship – something I don’t believe I’ve experienced anywhere else.

There were many unique touches at this church, from the acrylic surrounding the drummer (he did exhibit a lot of enthusiasm), to the pencil and envelope holders attached to the back of the metal folding chairs via a metal pencil holder and a few magnets (it looked a lot better than it sounds!), to projecting the same thing on the back wall for the worship leaders as on both front screens (an ingenious way for the leaders to know what the congregation is seeing).

In my opinion, music is one of the most important aspects of worship, and there was a pleasing mix of very contemporary songs. When I looked around, though, I noticed I was the only person moving to the music. I find it difficult to stand still when the music starts, and couldn’t help but wonder about the seeming lack of enthusiasm among the congregation.

The only aspect that’s more important than music, however, is the Word. I appreciated the sermon for several reasons, beginning with the topic: God’s gift of hope in Christ. The sermon was Biblically-based, and applied to everyday life…and death. Mark pointed out that “100% of us will die, and sometimes without warning.” Needless to say, I mentally seconded that. The bottom line of many sermons is a feel-good reassurance, and I found it refreshing to hear a sermon that bluntly stated a truth through which my family is currently living.

The bulletin contains many announcements and prayer requests, as well as a sermon outline and blanks which Mark filled in as he preached. As a visitor I wondered about the order of worship, but the atmosphere was casual enough that it didn’t bother me not to have one printed.

Were Bob and I looking for a church to join, Fountain Park would certainly be on the short list.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Chippewa Evangelical Free Church

Today we worshiped at Chippewa Evangelical Free Church, 239 Braun Road, Beaver Falls, PA 15010,

Bob’s thoughts:

The building is large and modern with excellent signage throughout, including a well-marked parking area. Visitor parking identified for 1st and 2nd time visitors and the parking lot was scraped and salted on this icy day.

At most contemporary worship services 20 people on the stage would have been overwhelming, but the wide stage made it seem less of a production. The bass reverb took away from the soloist’s clear powerful voice; it would have been good to let the strings when they were featured have less competition.

The chancel has a large back-lit cross for a focal point, and overall a lot of planning went into sanctuary. Comfortable auditorium seats with a sloped floor provided clear visibility, and speakers and lighting were well used.

I was impressed that the ushers did just that and got latecomers to their seats. Also when the prayer started the outer areas were quieted. There was a sign language interpreter on one side of the sanctuary. An inspiring sign was an elderly woman a few rows in front of us with her hands raised in praise. There seemed to be more than a few who get it – a good sign of a healthy church, and a good mix of ages.

We were greeted and the door was opened at the outer and inner doors, and with the large congregation we were not identifiable as visitors. We did stop at a well-equipped area for visitors after the service. Though we thought it was impressive that the area was staffed, I was disappointed that my wife and I were not permitted to finish a sentence. All of the mission info areas appeared to be staffed.

I realized I missed the layout of the service that a bulletin provided, but the handout had a bullet-point menu that sufficed.

The Christmas message from Philippians 2 on humility in service was well-delivered. I was pleased that it included the thought that we should celebrate the cross as well as the manger. Thanksgiving for the cross is too often lost often at Christmas.

I was glad the offering was taken in response to the Word, and the opportunity was given to come forward for prayer following the service.

The staffing was truly amazing – there were even guides to leave the parking area. There must be a very good business administrator.

Overall I was impressed with this non-denominational church. I have found a strong theological disagreement with most that I have visited. That was not a problem today.

Jan’s thoughts:

Due to some less than positive experiences at non-denominational churches in the past, I was hesitant to visit another; however I’ve realized that I miss the music found at contemporary worship services, so this seemed like a good place to go.

When we pulled into the parking lot, we were happy to find some spaces reserved for first- and second-time visitors, and upon entering the building each set of doors were opened by someone who greeted us. The greeting area (it definitely wasn’t a narthex) contained all sorts of sections, all manned by at least one person wearing a nametag and looking ready to greet anyone who looked curious. There was a mission center, women’s ministries center, and a small room dedicated to welcoming visitors. We stopped in there after the service and spoke with a very nice young man (I would’ve liked him better had he let me finish my sentences, but he was so anxious to greet us he kept interrupting me). There was a large refreshment area, lots of donuts, coffee, tea, and tables to sit and eat/drink/talk.

Signs were everywhere, and there was no need to ask anyone where anything was. Everything was laid out with obvious and careful thought and planning – even the information desk was immediately apparent upon entering. It was also very easy to get lost in the crowd.

The very large congregation was seated auditorium-style in well-padded seats. The lighting was excellent, and the large praise band was well-rehearsed and very professional. I counted two keyboardists, three violinists, four or five guitarists, two trumpet players, two trombone players, an oboist (I think), and six vocalists “on stage” as they put it, which is one of my personal problems with this sort of worship experience.

All that said, I also heard an excellent sermon. He spoke about what took place behind the scenes of the first Christmas, referring to the humility exhibited by the Son of God when He emptied himself of his deity and came to Earth to be born in a stable, making the point that pride is such a huge issue for all humans and we’d be much better off if we humbled ourselves and followed Jesus’ example in living our lives. He was well-spoken and personable and had good (if slightly long) illustrations. His sermon was biblically-based, as was the rest of what was said during the service. I felt that theologically we are probably on the same page, or at least in the same neighborhood.

One surprising difference is that there were no Advent candles. The bulletin was unique: a decorative cover (purple with a red stripe across the top and bottom). Announcements were printed inside; one insert was a sign-up sheet for a women’s Bible study and the other was for sermon notes, and there was a postcard invitation to Christmas Eve worship services. The Order of Worship was printed on the back cover.

All in all, the sermon was the best part, even with the contemporary music.

After Christmas we watched a DVD from the welcome bag. It had a nice cover, but please do not attempt to watch it. If you'd like to know more, please email one or both of us and we'll be happy to give you details.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Mount Pleasant Presbyterian Church

Today we worshiped at Mount Pleasant Presbyterian Church, 670 Pleasant Hills Road, Wexford, PA 15090,

Bob’s thoughts:

The recently renovated kitchen seemed equipped for service and uncluttered; some thought had obviously gone into storage needs.

We were welcomed and greeted by the small congregation. Warm modern building, comfortable pews with good spacing.

I missed having a church family light the Advent candle, and with four blue candles I thought the meaning in the colors was lost. It seemed less personal. Perhaps I was just remembering being blessed to serve with my family to light a candle and share the reading and prayer.

We were blessed to hear the bell choir, which was very good. My only critique was a lack of passion. “Joy to the World” needs to be performed with joy, and only one member smiled. When you feel the joy, it can’t help but be on your face and then is it reflected in the music.

I enjoyed the children and their participation in the children’s message.

There seemed to be an overall lack of passion; I felt like I was only viewing worship. Perhaps the pastor would be helped by having a liturgist or other involvement by laity. Unless the earlier service is contemporary in style, I’m not sure why there would be two services.

Good, easy-to-follow bulletin. The back of the bulletin has a list of supplies needed for military care packages. I see many of these types of lists, and on most the first half dozen items are tobacco products. This one had no tobacco products listed at all, so I liked this list much better.

Signage was okay, and the restrooms were pointed out to us.

There did not seem to be a lot of external mission, so I pray there’s more going on than I saw.

There is a cross hanging predominately on the wall of the chancel, and the offering was taken after the sermon. Both made me smile.

Jan’s thoughts:

Upon arriving, it was easy to see how the church got its name. This time of year, looking out from the parking lot, I could see quite a distance. Still, the church seemed like it was nestled along the side of the road.

Upon entering we encountered a young lady on her way up the stairs with a cup of tea, so we surmised there must be refreshments downstairs. Alas, there were none, but the young lady, who turned out to be the daughter of the pastor, was kind enough to lead us on a tour of the building.

The building is not old, but has a recently updated Fellowship Hall and a very nice kitchen (it seemed to me, anyway, as I don’t spend a lot of time in kitchens). Mt. Pleasant also hosts a preschool, and those rooms were painted the bright colors you’d expect. Signage was excellent – no problem finding any restrooms or questions about what was behind doors.

The people were quite friendly – one woman actually crossed the aisle to greet us prior to the service, and the greetings extended during the service made us feel very welcome. Much of the congregation was older but there were plenty of children.

It was a treat to hear the bell choir – not a very large group, but very talented, and they sounded marvelous.

There were several unique aspects to this church:
> Blue Advent candles (never saw them before);
> Wooden collection plates (nor them);
> The Pastor lit the Advent candles (also a first for me);
> The bulletin referred to “Our Stewardship of Self and Substance Before God” in listing attendance and giving for the last two weeks (thought that was a great way to word it).

The bulletin contained the Order of Worship on the inside of an 8 ½ x 11 cover, then all the announcements and scheduled events for the week were listed on a Christmas Joy Offering bulletin cover, also 8 ½ x 11. It was unique and worked well.

The sermon was Biblically-based and theologically correct, but felt cerebral.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

St. Andrew's United Presbyterian Church

Today we worshiped at St. Andrew's United Presbyterian Church, 801 Beaver Street, Sewickley, PA 15143.

Jan’s thoughts:

St. Andrew’s is a small church, but only if you use numbers as your criteria. We visited back in September, surprising my sister and her family who belong there, but today’s visit coincided with Rev. Lynn Portz’s announcement that she’s leaving St. Andrew’s at the end of this month. The members of St. Andrew’s received this bit of news this past week, but unlike many other congregations upon hearing of the pastor’s departure, they didn’t stay away. According to Lynn, “Everyone still came, which is a clear indication of their commitment to each other and, more importantly, to God.” Still it was a difficult service for Lynn and for the congregation, not to mention for Stephen Wutz, the Student Assistant who’s been there since September and who will stay after Lynn leaves, and who preached today.

I enjoyed Stephen’s sermon very much. He read Luke 1:15-20 and 26-38, the readings detailing two very different responses to personal appearances by the angel Gabriel announcing impending parenthood to Zechariah and Mary, Jesus’ mother, respectively. I appreciated the thought-provoking contrast and his challenge to the congregation to respond to the impending changes in their church with the same sort of faith Mary exhibited.

The Sanctuary features a beautiful dark wood ceiling and intricate, mostly rose-colored stained glass. The pews are curved all around, which is aesthetically pleasing. Although I was able to hear and understand Lynn perfectly, it was more difficult (though certainly not impossible) to understand Stephen. Perhaps the difference is between a wireless mike and one mounted on the pulpit? I freely admit that I don’t know enough about the whys and wherefores of those sorts of things, I can only speak of what I heard.

The people were very friendly, some even recalling my name from our September visit. They put my memory to shame, I’m afraid!

The time of greeting during the service is sometimes a tricky thing for visitors. People tend to greet those they know, but a strange face usually requires eye-to-eye contact or that I initiate the greeting. Consequently I was pleasantly surprised when a couple of people at St. Andrew’s tapped my shoulder and made it a point to speak to me.

The bulletin is only one folded page and a single half-page, so aside from the Order of Worship there are general housekeeping items such as a thank you to the Deacons for weekly refreshments, due date for poinsettia orders, and the like. The Order of Worship is easy to follow, though, and the type is larger than usual, which is something I appreciate the older I get.

Some signs would be helpful, especially a large one on the outside door that leads to the church office and is therefore locked Sunday morning. That’s hardly a big deal on a nice spring day, but on a blustery day like this I was anxious to get inside and had to go back down the stairs before I could enter through the other door.

I’ve found St. Andrew’s to be a friendly place to worship. I’ll be interested to see what happens following Lynn’s departure.

Bob’s thoughts:

St. Andrew’s could benefit from some signage (which one is the front door?); rest rooms themselves were marked but visitors could use directional signs to the area.

I appreciated the old Presbyterian architecture with great stained glass and wood ceiling.

For an older building and mostly older congregation I found it interesting that the last pew had been moved to make more room for baby carriers. Not realizing this, we sat in this pew first. By the time we figured out the reason for so much extra leg room, Jan’s sister & family had arrived so we moved to sit with them. Perhaps this is another spot where a sign would be helpful.

The acoustics were so poor at our last visit that I wasn’t optimistic in going back, but the minister was clear and understandable. Perhaps they just need mikes for others who speak.

The wood pews are dried out and noisy, and the organ drowned out the singing, but with about 40 worshipers, that’s easy to do.

With those few people Communion could have been very personal, but the elements were passed silently. Does anyone in the Presbyterian Church speak while passing the elements of Communion?

Parking is limited, but plenty of on-street spots are available nearby.

Everything I experienced seemed to indicate otherwise, but I felt that God would like to lead this church to a young adult ministry.

Stephen, the seminary student, delivered a good message under tough circumstances (the Pastor taking another call).

A request was printed in the bulletin that everyone stay after worship to help decorate the Sanctuary and Fellowship room, and it looked like almost everyone did stay. There’s a strong sense of unity in this church, so it didn’t surprise me.

I thought this visit was a marked improvement from our visit September 7.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Elfinwild Presbyterian Church

Today we worshiped at Elfinwild Presbyterian Church, 3200 Mt. Royal Blvd., Glenshaw, PA 15116,

Jan's thoughts:

This was our second visit to Elfinwild: we had visited last month before we started blogging, and a friend and co-worker of mine turned out to be the liturgist that week. We were surprised during the following week when someone from the church brought an edible gift to our house (which meant a lot since we're a good half hour's drive away), and my co-worker gave us some homemade chocolate chip cookies - a weakness of mine.

Elfinwild seems like a dichotomy - an old building housing a young-at-heart church. The congregation was quite warm and friendly and not at all hesitant about greeting us as we entered and then again during that time of the service.

The choir was robust, and I appreciated having the words to the anthem and offertory printed in the bulletin, as I was able to see how the theology of the music tied in with the theme of hope for the first Sunday of Advent. I was pleased when the Advent candle was lit - they lit the pink candle, which I personally believe is the correct one for the first Sunday of Advent. (I know there is some disagreement about this, but this is what I was taught.)

Andrew Lesnett did a terrific job as liturgist. I don't know how old he is, but as he gave the Offertory prayer I had a feeling he had written it himself, which his mother confirmed after the service. It was an impressive, mature prayer for someone so young.

The sermon particularly touched me. The Scripture was Matthew 7:24-29 (from the Sermon on the Mount about building one's house on the Rock), and Dirk emphasized the necessity of having a firm foundation WHEN the storms of life come.

Today marks five years since my mother's passing, and when I think of all that's happened since then, particularly the deaths of our son Dan and my dad, I felt God was using Dirk to speak directly to me. It also makes me think of how often Bob & I think we choose where we'll worship on any given week. During the benediction I was reminded again that we go nowhere by accident - wherever we are, we are because God has sent us there.

The bulletin contains LOTS of information; however, it was cumbersome. Early on, after mine slid off my lap, it took some time to figure out what was what again. I'd suggest keeping the Order of Worship on the one folded page and including the rest in the form of unfolded inserts. That way when the bulletin is folded for use during worship it's possible to insert everything inside that's not worship-related and still follow worship. Just a thought, for what it's worth.

There is much going on at this church, both inside their walls and in the community at large. The bulletin also contains a long list of prayer concerns, and people are invited to visit the chapel following worship for private prayer with a Session member. It's always encouraging when church leaders are willing to pray spontaneously with people.

Another issue is signage. Since we usually enjoy a coffee as we drive to church, one of the first things I usually need to find upon arrival is the Ladies Room. As I walked down the hallway I glimpsed a toilet and headed in, but I didn't realize I was in the wrong place until I got through the doorway and saw the urinal. I was a little startled (and glad no one appeared to have seen me!). Only then did I see the sign on the front of the door, but when the door was open the sign wasn't visible. A sign that stuck out from the wall above the room would be helpful. We really only knew the location of the Sanctuary because of our previous visit, and we'd had to explore to locate it then as there were no signs indicating its direction either.

The building is older, and the only handicapped accommodation I noticed was a chair lift. Lots of wood in the Sanctuary gives it a warm feel, and the stained glass is impressive.

I like Elfinwild's people and their pastor, and I won't hesitate to visit again.

Bob's thoughts:

This was a return trip to Elfinwild on the first Sunday of Advent and we received warm greetings and welcome back. Elfinwild has the appearance of being "old" Presbyterian - cathedral ceiling, interesting windows, ornate woodwork, but with a decidedly country warmth. There is a large cross above the chancel - very important to me and sadly lacking in many churches.

Even on our second visit we could have used signage. Rest rooms themselves were marked, but there were no direction signs.

Common-sense thinking went into the need for more hymnal space, with carpet on the bottom of the holder to help with noise. I've seen much more elaborate schemes, but this was a very effective adaptation.

I found the bulletin very confusing, large with a lot of information, but requiring a lot of jumping around.

I was impressed during the passing of the peace, the young people who joined in is a sign of a healthy church.

The acoustics were very good, which is hard to accomplish with church architecture. The organ did tend to drown out the voices - don't know if that was a bad thing, but the passion came across.

I was disappointed that the offering came before the Word.

I felt truly blessed to be present when the pastor's young son Andrew was serving as liturgist. I thought he did an excellent job and was quite pleased to learn that he wrote his own prayer.

Two important thoughts from the sermon (as I heard it): we are called to be Christ followers, not to be like Christ followers, and most importantly, that we are not just given one chance. Our heavenly Father knows our faults and failures and will keep welcoming us back, thanks be unto God.

I don't believe the elements of Communion should ever by offered by telepathy. The words are important and should be stated boldly because it's very personal.

Elfinwild is forming a Technology Team, which seems like an excellent start. They're also opening up ushering and greeting responsibilities to laity, sharing the blessing.

Lastly, I saw some great numbers about missions (I feel the best sign of Christ's healthy church), but could find little mention of what these missions might be.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Cranberry Community United Presbyterian Church

Today we worshiped at Cranberry Community United Presbyterian Church, 2662 Rochester Road, Cranberry Township, PA 16066,

Jan's thoughts:

This facility is obviously very new, nicely designed, well kept, and thoughtfully laid out. (A photo of the outside is on the home page of their website.) However, from the moment I walked in I did not feel like we were in a church. The "Greeting Area" boasted numerous tables containing various information: a mission table, one with members' name tags, another nearby with blank name stickers and a request that visitors indicate their name. (If you know Bob, I don't have to say that we didn't take them up on that offer.)

Since we arrived early we had time to walk around the building some. A number of the rooms seemed to be in use for the Sunday school hour, and there were many children running around.

A few people spoke to us but I'm not sure they all knew we were visitors, except the gentleman sitting next to us during the service who specifically asked and who, following the service, offered that he hoped we'd come back next week. This is a fairly large church (according to the bulletin, last week's attendance was 286) and it's very easy to get lost in a church that size.

The building felt contemporary and the worship service had a blended feel to it in spite of not having a screen (the bulletin contained the printed words to the hymns) and using traditional music. They do have an earlier service, which I'm guessing might be contemporary.

One unique thing was the pews: they were arranged in a "V" formation and there was adequate distance between my knees and the pew in front of us for someone to get by without having to scrunch.

The music was well-done, and the liturgist well-spoken. The sermon was okay, but seemed to cover very basic theology. (Perhaps this congregation is still in the "milk" stage.) I enjoyed the story at the end about Louis Pasteur and his proof of the germ theory. (With a bit of reading what Google comes up with I'm not convinced he had all the details right, but his preaching of the story contained observable passion.) The theological knot he used to tie it in was "being saved by the blood of the one who overcame," and this appealed to me.

The bulletin is tri-folded 11x17" paper, and contains quite a lot of helpful information, as does the website.

Bob's thoughts:

Interesting sanctuary, lots of windows around the chancel which could be a vibrant focal point for a sunrise worship or an evening service, Christmas Eve late worship with the curtains removed. There is definite potential for dramatic effect.

The blend of direct and indirect lighting was well done. Good acoustics and speaker placement. The Sanctuary is large enough to have benefited from a sloped floor. Very comfortable pews with extra spacing between. The signage was adequate for a somewhat confusing building. They could really use a sign at the main road, however.

My feeling was that this is a church that believes they have a family atmosphere without really knowing each other. With attendance figures of about 1,000 per month and two services, I think the visitor gets lost. There is a visitor table with badges and printed name tags for members. We did talk to someone in the area but were not asked if we were visiting, which led me to believe the badges were to make it easier for members, not visitors.

The bulletin contained budget information indicating good stewardship numbers to general operating account, and there was a good sense of mission it is not reflected in the numbers. I believe it's important for a church to tithe, but according to the numbers, this one does not tithe.

The sermon started out being about actors preparing to play a role getting acclimated to the character by walking a mile in the shoes of someone in preparation to portray the role, but went off on a tangent after that. Very basic stuff, loosely jointed. Missed the passion.

The pastor has a column in the bulletin entitled "I Was Just Thinking," and the subject was "you have one last sermon to preach in your ministry." There was passion in this article, so I expected passion in his sermon as well and was disappointed.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Southminster Presbyterian Church

Today we worshiped at Southminster Presbyterian Church, 799 Washington Road, Mt. Lebanon, PA 15228,

Jan's thoughts:

We've worshiped at Southminster on a semi-regular basis since Dan Merry began his ministry there, and it's always a joy to be there. The people are warm and friendly, the music has always been excellent, and Dan's sermons are thought-provoking and always worth hearing.

Because we arrived immediately before the service began, for a change we sat toward the back of the very large (and mostly full) sanctuary. Due to my ear condition, I was unsure how well I'd be able to hear the service from there, but the sound system worked very well and I was able to hear everything just fine.

Today we had the privilege of witnessing a baptism. I don't know how old little Samuel Jeffrey is, but he was alertly paying attention to the entire event, and seemed quite happy about it.

The church has also begun a prayer shawl ministry, and a number of the shawls were hung over the back of the pews throughout the sanctuary. During the Time With the Children the congregation laid hands on the shawls while a prayer of consecration was prayed. It was touching (literally and figuratively!). Dan said he would take one of the shawls to his mother when he visits her following her surgery tomorrow.

The Women's Handbell Team then performed "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." This hymn is a favorite of mine, mostly because the words are so powerful, and it was the words that were going through my mind while listening to this excellent rendition. Strangely enough, the piece seemed to lose some of its power in hearing it performed by such a light-sounding "instrument." Please don't construe this as a criticism of the handbells (which I played for a time and loved) or of the Women's Handbell Team - they were excellent. It's purely a personal preference and observation.

Dan's sermon (regarding stewardship - 'tis the season after all) was right on, and the delivery was superb. Dan is such a gifted preacher, and I'd say that even if he wasn't my friend.

Another Southminster friend whose gifts I admire is Dan's assistant, Mary Cullison. When Mary publishes a bulletin, I know it will be beautifully spaced and designed. Like the rest of us, Mary has probably allowed a typo or two in her time, but I've never found one. She's a gifted professional.

For a church with such a long history, Southminster exudes friendliness and a genuine passion to proclaim and serve Christ. No wonder we keep coming back.

Bob's thoughts:

It's interesting to visit then write about a church that we've been to before. I found myself not looking for signage, etc., but maybe looking closer at the heart.

We were greeted immediately inside the main doors by a very pleasant woman with a genuine smile. That shouldn't be odd, but it is, and we felt very welcome.

We were warmly greeted by Associate Pastor Ken White and Senior Pastor Dan Merry. Dan even took our coffee cups to the trash for about servant ministry!

Southminster has an "old" Presbyterian look and feel. Awesome stained glass and woodwork, true cathedral ceiling with side balconies. A church that should be brimming with "old" Presbyterian dignity and old-school Presbyterians. I have no doubt they have more than their share, but there is something alive at Southminster. It's not just the inward programs, but the outward mission. There is an energy growing in worship. I believe it is an awareness of Christ at work. Southminster has ministers who believe,and I'm excited for them.

We were blessed to be there for a baptism and consecration of the prayer shawls. I got a little lost in the long story of the inception of this ministry, but the passion is obvious. Pray that they are encouraged.

Dan preached a radical sermon on stewardship. I pray the congregation found something to buy into in this excellent message.

Personally, I believe stewardship starts after His 10%. Don't just give Christ the bacon, but the whole ham, tenderloins and all. Give from the best.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Bethany Presbyterian Church

Today we worshiped at Bethany Presbyterian Church 740 Washington Avenue, Bridgeville, PA 15017,

Jan's thoughts:

We've attended a few Partnership events at Bethany as well as Jim Mead's farewell dinner, so we were not total strangers at this church. We also have some friends who attend there, but only saw one today.

The building is very new (2005, I believe), and a lot of thought obviously went into the planning. Even if we hadn't known where the sanctuary was, we wouldn't have had to ask because the signs were everywhere. The same for the restrooms.

One unique physical feature at Bethany is the Welcome Center in the Narthex which boasts round tables that seat probably 6 or 8, a refreshment bar (coffee, tea, cookies), and space for people to stand (or sit) around and chat. A very welcoming atmosphere and many people took the opportunity it presented. The stained glass is beautiful and the whole building is thoughtfully laid out. It has an open, accessible feel to it.

However, aside from the one friend I mentioned earlier, only the greeters, one usher, and one gentleman sitting nearby spoke to us.

We were privileged to be present for the reception of new members, including one who was baptized, as well as the first Sunday for the Rev. David Antonson as Bethany's Interim Pastor and Barb Crawford as the Interim Christian Education Director.

The bulletin is a work of art containing numerous small but informative touches. Instead of the traditional photo or drawing of the church, the cover carries a pretty banner and the founding date (Oct. 18, 1814), notes indicating joy at our presence, direction to quiet our hearts before God and listen to the music, information about child care, and their mission statement. In the responsive Call to Worship, the congregation's parts are in red print and all caps, making it nearly impossible to become lost. The Scripture readings are printed in the bulletin, the identities of the greeters and ushers, the flower donor, the new members, the children's church teachers, and the Welcome Center sponsors. Financial information, this year's per capita apportionment, and attendance figures are also included, along with church staff and contact information. There's lots more, so anything you might want to know about Bethany you can probably find in the bulletin.

The Nursery uses a paging system, where parents picked up a pager after they dropped off their child(ren), and the staff could then reach the parent quickly and discretely. A great idea which I've only seen once before.

The choir was quite strong, and I thought the organist was excellent. We were treated to the Bethany Ringers who rang "When Peace Like a River," which I know as "It is Well With My Soul." A beautiful rendering of a piece that means a lot to me, as we heard it at church the day after our son's death. That was also when I learned the story of how the song came to be written, and I took that as a promise that it would also come to be well with my soul. I think I'm getting there...

This is getting longer and longer, so I'll just finish by saying that we left after speaking with the one usher who spoke to us earlier, and that was it. I'm sure that had we seen our other friends they would've introduced us to some people, but that didn't happen.

Bob's thoughts:

Bethany has effected a great redesign, very comfortable worship and fellowship areas. Accessibility has been well-addressed. Also good signage, acoustics, and very comfortable pews.

I have a concern that the tool of the church building may be too good, causing a tendancy to be inward-focused. I expected more mention of mission outside the church, but there are lots of good things going on inside.

There is a lot of information in the bulletin, which is printed on good stock paper.

I've always understood that the offering was in response to the Word, so I was not happy with the order of worship, as the offering was accepted before the sermon.

No one greeted us except the usher I engaged and a worshiper who complimented my Christian shirt.

Great group of children for the children's message. If the quantity of youth is indicative of the health of the group, Bethany has good potential.

Great ringers and the organ was not too loud.

Good message subject (the Great Commission), but I felt it trailed off when it came to direction for action. It's not fair to assess an interim's first message, though; he and the church need time to get to know each other. It's an interesting adjustment with an Associate Pastor in place.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Chippewa United Presbyterian Church

Today we worshiped at Chippewa United Presbyterian Church, 530 Blackhawk Road, Beaver Falls, PA 15010,

Jan's thoughts:

Nicely kept outside and inside. The people were some of the friendliest of all the churches we've visited...they even invited us to join a group of them for lunch after the service. (Although we appreciated the invitation, we had other plans and had to decline.)

The sanctuary was interestingly arranged - the praise team sat on the right side of the chancel and on the left was the organ and pulpit and in front of them was seating for the choir. Very efficient, I thought.

The praise team was strong, but the choir was less so.

The pastor used some (I felt) unnecessary visual aids during the sermon.

Some of the type in the bulletin was small and hard to read, and the Friendship Register never did make its way to us. I appreciated the list of church officers in the bulletin, as well as the streamlined announcements page.

When we entered and headed toward the sanctuary prior to the service we noticed the praise team (I think) in a prayer circle. That's always encouraging. We also noticed a sign for a Prayer Room, which I guessed was a quiet room for either private prayer or two (or more) to pray together. This indicated to me a congregation desiring to support each other by leaning on God - an excellent plan, I think.

Bob's thoughts:

The people were very welcoming.

There was one small sign indicating the direction of the restrooms, so we had to ask about their location.

It would be worth a visit to this church just to see the tapestry in the narthex - a real work of art. And it's a great sanctuary with interesting stained glass.

I wondered if the blended service was new - some members of the choir obviously didn't welcome the contemporary music. However, since there was a high bass reverb from the organ that bothered my ears tremendously, it was a relief that it wasn't used that much. The violin was an excellent addition to the praise team, and the flute accompanying the choir was very enjoyable.

The pastor moved from the pulpit to lead guitar for the praise team to singing with the choir and back to the pulpit to preach. I wondered if he could've used a phone booth to change between roles... I thought the visual aids during the sermon were unnecessary and that the sermon lacked passion.

We celebrated Communion, but I thought the elders could've used some rehearsal. It's always so powerful and personal to serve the elements with the verbal statement that "Christ did this for you," and I always wish people would say that, or something similar. The pastor instructed the people to say that, but the elder who served us didn't and it lost something for me.

It's unfortunate there were so many empty seats. It's a great facility, and very accessible. Wonder if maybe it's under-used? We had no opportunity to tour the building, so we're left to guess.