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.