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.