Sunday, March 29, 2009

Northway Christian Community

Today we worshiped at Northway Christian Community, 12121 Perry Highway, Wexford, PA 15090,

Bob’s thoughts:

We pulled into a large, full, parking lot and were fortunate to find a spot near an entrance. The church is an impressive structure, well laid out and landscaped, very handicapped accessible, with a very open narthex. I was impressed right from the entry on the signage, both directional and area. We were early and had an opportunity to wander around. The second floor did not receive the attention of the main floor; I think it may have been mostly school rooms. I did not notice a kitchen, but it is a very large building.

While we were checking the materials at the information desk, one of the pastors introduced himself and we had a pleasant chat. When he noticed I was a Marine, he went out of his way to introduce me to the senior pastor, whom he said was a Marine as well. The Corps is a strong brotherhood, and I thought it odd that none of the common comments or phrases were forthcoming upon our meeting.

The Sanctuary was what you would expect of this type of church: large stage, big screens, and very comfortable seating. Unfortunately, the worship became a performance right off. To me it felt that the congregation was being told what to feel and think. I believe this church looks at itself as one large family, but I saw no evidence of that. I was disappointed that I could not find a cross, and there were no references to mission. I worry about the message of this church, as I’m not sure there is room for Christ.

The offering was not yet taken when we left toward the end of the sermon, so I assume it was taken in response to the Word preached, but not sure what word.

There is obviously a very good business manager on the staff. There is attention to a lot of details, areas that should be visible are, and seemed like good child security was in place. Northway comes across as a very good business, but not much room for Christ.

The highlight of my visit was while we were in the welcoming room a young boy about 2 or 3 years old ran up and gave me a hug. Christ was there in that hug.

Jan’s thoughts:

Having driven past Northway several times recently, we thought we should stop in and chose this day to do so. It’s an attractive building with plenty of parking. A huge complex, very open and accessible to the handicapped worshipers who attend.

We arrived during the 9 a.m. service, so we had plenty of time to tour the building, which was good because it took quite a while. From the moment we entered, it was obvious that much planning had gone into the arrangement and administration. The signage was excellent, and there were many nice touches. An electronic device for members to check in their children before taking them to their classrooms; a hospitality room for visitors was stocked with bottled water, pastries, coffee, and a slew of informational material. Large-screen closed circuit TVs throughout the well-seated atrium make it possible to see and hear the service from outside the Sanctuary. It took us almost an hour to tour leisurely throughout the areas of the building we did see.

As the early service was letting out, we were approached by one of the pastors and had an extended conversation, after which he introduced us to the senior pastor. Other than three of the pastors and the woman staffing the visitor room, the only other people who greeted us sat very nearby and introduced themselves during the service.

The bulletin contains announcement-type information, a calendar of events for the week, a brief article from the senior pastor, and a fill-in-the-blanks sermon outline, but no order of worship. It also contains an invitation to participate in a service of Baptism on Good Friday, which I’ve never heard of before. I know Good Friday is the one day when the Sacrament of Communion is not celebrated, so is Baptism appropriate on Good Friday?

The “Sanctuary,” such as it is, is very comfortable auditorium-style seating, a stage from which the pastor preached and the band (for lack of a better word) performed. They did their best to evoke something akin to passion and sincerity, but I sensed neither.

One thing I hardly mention but something to which I pay close attention is the theology of the music. With traditional hymns, the theology is usually (though not always) on target, but the music this morning was all about us. Worship is supposed to be God-centered and the music, being such a large part of a service such as this especially, needs to be God-centered also. However, this music was all about how happy we are that Jesus died for us and we’re forgiven. Of course this is true, but surely it goes deeper than that? We worship God for what He gets out of it, not what we get, so why did we not sing about how great God is, even if the reason we think He’s great is because of what He’s done for us?

Then there’s the sermon. I made note of several things about which I wondered. The text was John 11:1-46, about Lazarus, which he read through piece-meal as he preached, and he spoke of “encounters” meaning, I think, God-orchestrated events in our lives. His points were, in my opinion, shallow and slightly skewed theologically, with an emphasis on miracles that I found puzzling. Certainly Jesus’ restoring Lazarus to life was a miracle, no question about it. But I’d bet my bottom dollar that in a crowd that size there were more than a few who took his words to mean that they have a miracle coming to them if they (or someone) just has faith. That seems pretty dangerous ground to tread.

In all the time we’ve been visiting churches, there was only one other service which we chose to leave before it ended, but today makes two. And we don’t plan to return.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Mars United Presbyterian Church

Today we worshiped at Mars United Presbyterian Church, 232 Crowe Avenue, Mars, PA 16046,

Bob’s thoughts:

Very appealing Sanctuary – lots of natural wood work and original wood ceiling. The stained glass windows have a repeating rectangle pattern in the lower pane that was particularly interesting. The pews are arranged in an arc with upholstered seat and back. There is a conventional brass cross on the Communion table and a very interesting carved wood cross on a pole off to the side. I noted two baptismal fonts, I assume either from the merging of the two churches or for baptizing twins.

There was little directional signage, but there seemed little need. Observed a good kitchen off of the fellowship hall. There is an overlapping photo frame of some of the young children of the church. Also noticed photos of recent new members on a bulletin board. Unfortunately we couldn’t stay to sample the muffins I smelled earlier.

The bulletin was well laid out and easy to follow, and I noticed a basket just outside the Sanctuary requesting that worshipers “recycle the bulletins.”

The sermon was delivered with some refreshing youthful passion but also with seeming apprehension. Two points from the sermon caught my interest: one, that Christ was not just a “great human teacher” as some try to state, and two, that Barabbas was also named Jesus. Pilate’s call could have been “Do you want me to release Jesus or Jesus?” I was reflecting just this week that Jesus was a common name but besides Christ, could only find Barabbas identified as such.

The pastor also reflected on an aspect that we don’t consider – if Barabbas was still confined at the time of Pilate’s questions, he would have heard the crowd yell his name and then “Crucify him.” What a reprieve, then, to be brought forth to freedom.

My only complaint is that the offering was taken before the Word was preached and not in response to the Word.

Jan’s thoughts:

Due to my niece Sarah’s wedding this afternoon, we sought an early worship service this week. We arrived early and thorough the back door, giving us the opportunity to tour some of the building on our way locating the Sanctuary. We met the pastor in the process, and enjoyed a pleasant conversation with him. Though some people were in the kitchen preparing the after-service snacks, we did manage a glimpse.

We noted several lovely touches throughout the building. The first, on the wall outside the nursery, was a multi-frame picture holder with photos of the infants in the congregation. Each was labeled with the child’s name, date of birth, and date of baptism. Near the Sanctuary we saw a bulletin board with photos and names of the active Elders and Deacons.

As we made our way upstairs past the elevator, we saw a bulletin board labeled “Prayer Board” and containing notes with prayer requests. The restroom signs were on the doors, but easy enough to locate anyway. The ladies room was one of the nicest I’ve seen – spacious, clean, nicely decorated, and there was even hand lotion on the sink.

As we approached the Sanctuary, we noticed everyone was sitting in the left-hand pews, leaving the pews on the right completely empty. The gentleman usher noticed we were headed for the right hand pews and stopped us to explain that at this early service everyone sits on the left because 30 years ago the pastor asked it be done this way and they still do so. It’s definitely a Presbyterian church.

The people were very friendly, introducing themselves and shaking hands during the service as well as afterward, inviting us to stay for muffins and coffee. The muffins looked scrumptious, so it was unfortunate we had to leave.

The Sanctuary was quite pleasing: the stained glass was unique and stunning, the wood on the padded pews matched that in the Chancel, and the color of the padding on the pews matched the walls. The rosy-red carpet looked quite striking and it all worked together very well. Another of those “lovely touches” was in the back corner of the Sanctuary, a small double shelf holding only the collection plates. I thought it looked utilitarian and simple and perfectly functional.

The sermon, titled “What Shall I Do With Jesus?” was thought-provoking, educational, and well-done. He spoke about how, especially with children, an adult will say, “What am I gonna do with you?” Then moved into Pilate’s dealing with Jesus and in essence asking that same question, “What am I going to do with you?” He pointed out that in human perspective it was Jesus who was on trial, from a heavenly perspective it was Pilate who was on trial. I was fascinated by the point that Barabbas would have been in prison when Pilate asked the crowd who he should release, and Barabbas would have heard the crowd yell his name, after which he would have heard the crowd yell “Crucify him.” Certainly that would have convinced him that he was the one the crowd wanted crucified. What an interesting perspective.

Perhaps someone knows what happened to Barabbas after he was released. Did he ever know that Jesus gave His life for him also? Did he come to faith in Christ? Or did he leave and never look back, never wondering what changed from the time he heard the crowd yelling for what he thought was his crucifixion and the guards letting him go free? This sermon made me think.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Park Presbyterian Church

Today we worshiped at Park Presbyterian Church, 275 Commerce Street, Beaver, PA 15009,

Bob’s thoughts:

We were very early for the service and had time to tour most of the facility. The weather was mild so it was especially nice that we were able to walk around the outside of the building. There are many parking spaces designated for visitors and the handicapped, and the church has addressed those needs with an elevator and wheelchair ramp (although partially blocked by a bicycle when we walked by).

A lot of attention has been paid to maintenance and updating and blending very well with the 1900 church building. The inside would benefit from some directional signage, but the rooms were well marked. The Sanctuary features very impressive wood work and stained glass and the consistent color ties the pews to the Chancel. The pews are arranged in an arc with a large wooden arch tying in the rear seating. There is a large cross on the wall with a purple drape hung unevenly, which I think looks best.

I don’t remember having been in any other church where more people greeted us warmly, some with excellent phrasing (“Here’s someone I don’t recognize.”). Much more so, people remembered things on which we commented and brought others by who shared that interest or involvement. We were not encouraged to join, but to come back.

We were blessed with an excellent bongo accompaniment to the contemporary songs and then to witness a baptism. I was impressed that 13 of the 15 members of the choir sang along with the contemporary praise music. I also took pleasure in the cross decorating the front of the choir robes.

Although I was disappointed, as always, that the offering was taken before the Word was preached, I did appreciate the call to the offering, which referred to bringing “His tithes and our offerings.”

The sermon seemed to be kind of loose to start. I think the minister had trouble relating to the theme. But after some seemingly random contemplation it came together again with the thought of adversity and our interaction with God when we need Him most; that special understanding that brings us to be able to praise God in the midst of our trials.

The Annual Report reflects a healthy mission budget. The bulletin offers a staffed prayer room open daily, a grief mission, and others – good signs of a healthy church. The week’s schedule was full indicating good stewardship of the facilities.

Jan’s thoughts:

We arrived quite early and the weather was pleasant so we took a walk around the building. The visitor’s parking, marked from the street, was plentiful as were regular parking spaces. The building is very old (date on the cornerstone is 1904) and we learned an addition had been completed in 1930. Renovations were finished about six years ago, and the building looks very well-kept. The stone on the outside of the building, however, has a strange reddish cast to it. I couldn’t help but think that, though probably expensive, a good cleaning would make the place look like new.

Inside we were greeted by a Deacon who took the time to tell us all about the history of the building, details of some of the stained glass windows, and past locations where the church met. There was a visitor’s center in the small narthex right inside the door and at least one more further in the building.

After talking with a couple more people, we took a self-guided tour of the building, including the downstairs kitchen (huge, well designed, and well cared-for) and the classrooms upstairs. Everywhere we went more people asked if we were visiting and introduced themselves.

One wall near the library was dedicated to pictures and information about Africa, and I commented to the woman who was with us at that point that I had been there twice. Before we left we were approached by one of the women we had met who indicated she is the chair of the Mission Commission, and she invited me to speak to them at their next meeting in early April about my experiences in mission. Of course I agreed.

Signage was abundant, clear, and consistent in style (i.e., if we were looking for directions we looked for a green sign with white letters – very helpful).

We’ve been visiting churches for a while, and of all the churches we’ve visited, more members identified us as visitors here than anywhere else. I lost count of the number of people who introduced themselves to us. I was bowled over.

The architecture of the Sanctuary was impressive. In addition to the stained glass windows, the ceilings were high and decorated minimally so they didn’t look cluttered. The medium-colored wood nicely complemented the tan carpeting, and the large cross on the back wall of the Chancel bore an unevenly draped purple cloth. The choir sat against the back wall facing the congregation and the Music Director hopped between the organ and the piano.

The bulletin consists of an 11x17” tri-folded sheet containing quite a bit of information plus two 8 ½ x 11” half sheets for sign-ups and a folded 8 ½ x 11” sheet of additional music. Even with all that, it worked out okay.

The sermon was titled, “Abandoned by God” and was about exactly that concern. I don’t pretend to know the pastor (Interim Pastor Rev. Eric Powell), but I give him credit for tackling a difficult-at-best topic. It’s one with which I’ve personally dealt since the death of our son Dan, so I was glad to hear him affirm toward the end of the sermon some conclusions I’ve come to after some wrestling: no, God doesn’t abandon us during difficult times, that the best thing we can do is stay close to God, trust Him, and communicate our feelings to Him honestly. I agree.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The First United Presbyterian Church

Today we worshiped at The First United Presbyterian Church, 408 Bridge Street, Bridgewater, PA 15009, 724.847.0748.

Bob’s thoughts:

I’m not one to look for omens, but cold coffee from Giant Eagle on a rainy morning and cold coffee again at the church did not bode well.

The Sanctuary was very pleasant, a lot of dark wood surrounding the organ pipes and a large central cross with a purple drape. I’m not sure of the age of the building but I’d guess over 200 years due to the original pressed tin ceiling. It was all nicely tied together.

The pew spacing was tight but no one needed to pass. When we sit in the back I always wonder whose seat we're sitting in. Did not notice any interior signage but we were enthusiastically greeted at the entry by an usher and a greeter and offered the location of the coat rack, restroom, and coffee area.

The bulletin was laid out well and center-folded for the service. There was a request for deacons and elders to meet with the pastor for prayer before the service and a note that there would be Communion and footwashing on Maundy Thursday.

We met, I believe, the Church Secretary, who was the only parishioner who greeted us, and came from the other side of the Sanctuary to do so. Her enthusiasm barely allowed me to get my name out so I was unable to compliment her on the bulletin.

This was another church that solved the hymnal dilemma by keeping them all – three this time, and it was noted in the bulletin which hymnal was to be used during this service. I noticed no pew Bibles. There was a simple visitor card/prayer request/wish card given at the door along with a pen prominently indicating the pastor’s name and the initials after, THB.

I am always disappointed when the offering is taken before the Word.

I was greatly impressed at the start of the service with the passion and theological insight. This pastor seemed to really “get it,” but somewhere after the Children’s Message it went away. The Children’s Message was well done – he responded to their comments and encouraged them when they were on track. It was a good, simple message with a simple metaphor of a lamp to Christ’s light. The pastor touched the head of each of the children and young adults as he prayed his blessing upon them. Though he came across as a pastor who believes (this should not be an oddity), the delivery could've been less personal and more focused on God.

The Prayer of Illumination was supplanted by an explanation of why there was not an Ash Wednesday service. I was disappointed with the explanation that it was for show since I never viewed the imposition and wearing of ashes as a display.

A great addition to the service was two young girls who performed a duet on a flute and clarinet.

Jan’s thoughts:

I located this church online via the Beaver-Butler Presbytery website, but couldn’t locate the church’s website even after Googling it. There are also at least two other First Presbyterian Churches in the area.

This is a pretty little church on an easy-to-find corner barely into Bridgewater. It was pouring rain when we arrived, but the greeters were enthusiastic and warm. It struck me as unusual to walk in the front door and the first thing I saw was the large cross draped with a purple cloth at the front of the Sanctuary, but that’s exactly what I saw and it was arresting.

The inside was nicely decorated and presented beautifully: dark wood throughout, touches of purple everywhere – the liturgical color of the season and my personal favorite. The stained glass windows were narrow and gave the Sanctuary a delicate feel, along with the subtle coloring on the hanging light fixtures. The Sanctuary was small but filled to probably 75% capacity.

I observed no signs, but the pastor’s wife was one of the greeters and before we could even ask, she anticipated our needs and cheerily directed us toward the restroom and an area where we could hang our coats.

There was no choir, and I’m not sure where they would sit if there was one. But the pianist was enjoyable as were the two girls who did a duet on the flute and clarinet during the service. There was no opportunity to greet the other worshipers during the service, but prior to worship an elder who is also the church secretary made it a point to introduce herself. She asked what brought us there today and I responded that we were simply visiting. She commented that she would say then that God had brought us. I would have appreciated the opportunity to tell her that there was more truth to that than she could know and, as a former Church Secretary, perhaps chat about the challenges of being a Church Secretary in your own church. Besides the usher and greeter, she was the only other person to greet us.

The bulletin was a folded 8 ½ x 11” sheet, simply laid out and typed. The other printed announcements were on inserts, including one dedicated to prayer requests. And the bulletin contained a request that all deacons and elders join the pastor for prayer prior to the worship service.

According to the website, the pastor is a Commissioned Lay Pastor, and according to his wife he had been a Marine and had served 2 years in Viet Nam. Consequently it was truly unfortunate that we had a prior commitment and couldn’t stay and chat following the service as I’m sure he and Bob would’ve had a lot to talk about.

I wanted to ask him about the initials after his name in the bulletin: “Th.B.” If anyone reading this knows what that stands for, I’d be grateful if you’d email me ( and let me know.

During a portion of the service the bulletin indicated was for the Prayer for Illumination, the pastor chose to address the congregation about a question someone had asked at some point the previous week about Ash Wednesday. If I understood correctly, he informed the congregation that this church doesn’t use ashes on Ash Wednesday because it is considered outwardly pious and too much like the Pharisees. I wanted to remind him that only God was qualified to judge others’ hearts.

The sermon detailed how to attain a saving faith, i.e., prayer, Bible reading, serving the church and the community and leading our families, and standing firm and not wavering. It then wandered into the concerns of the day such as financial issues. I wanted to hear him say at some point that a relationship with God was important because our faith is a gift from Him. However I suspect that, like God’s bringing us to this church in the first place, that was supposed to be a given.

Maybe it was the Marine in him delivering the sermon, but I prefer preaching that’s less of a spotlight on the pastor and does not use a sledgehammer approach.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Hiland Presbyterian Church

Today we worshiped at Hiland Presbyterian Church, 845 Perry Highway, Pittsburgh, PA 15229,

Bob’s thoughts:

We know our way around Hiland so we didn’t need signage, but noticed some areas that could use signs. We were very warmly greeted by people we knew, but no others. Hiland has some great banners at Christmas, and I was pleasantly surprised to see some good ones today – enough to stop back after the service and take photos. There is a brass cross in the chancel with an off-center-looking tapestry behind it. The church has soft stained glass and the ceiling has a radius to the walls tying it all together very well.

There were about 150 people in worship, but they seemed like spectators.

The service started with a very well-done message from the youth on the upcoming dinner theater. I found it refreshing compared with the old Hiland; also the accompaniment of instruments was a fantastic addition.

We sat towards the rear to blend as Presbyterians and couldn’t see all those playing, but the passion of the cello player was apparent on her face.

The Children’s Sermon about the colors of the paraments made me realize that Larry is a good preacher because he’s a good teacher. The children seemed to readily absorb the message and I’m sure the adults benefitted.

The bulletin was laid out well and easy to follow. I’m sure Hiland is used to this excellence from Maureen, but it is a blessing.

I thought it was an intriguing approach to the “new hymnal” dilemma – keep them both. I was pleased that the offering was in response to the Word and that personal prayer time was offered after the service.

I believe Larry challenges the congregation to think – something that is lacking many churches. Sermon points included faith as a verb, requiring action. I find it easy to profess my faith but hard to make it part of my walk. I believe it’s very easy to claim our acts of faith as our own, and hard to admit it is really all God’s doing.

My guess is that we’ve all questioned God’s method of bringing the message of salvation, and would prefer flashing neon signs in the heavens, but in coming to know God we realize that just wouldn’t work. We’d be looking for yet something more before we could believe.

I sensed Christ’s presence at Hiland in the message, the music, and prayers, but most of all in the joy of some of Christ’s little ones in the back of the Sanctuary.

Jan’s thoughts:

It has been several years since I was last inside Hiland, and even longer since I was there for worship. I was curious to see what might have changed in that span, and much has indeed changed.

Because we were already familiar with the layout we didn’t need to rely on signs; however, when I headed to the ladies room prior to the service, I followed the sign with an arrow toward the general direction but was unsure where to go from there until a young lady kindly pointed me toward the correct door. So perhaps a few more signs might be in order.

We were greeted with warm hugs from many old friends, but people we did not know tended to give us a quick hello and a nod (except for the young lady who pointed out the ladies room to me).

Hiland’s buildings are older, but very well kept, nicely painted and decorated. Two strikingly distinctive banners adorned each side of the front of the Sanctuary, and a shiny new piano was in memory of a recently deceased member who had been a valued part of the choir.

The bulletin was easy to read and to follow, with the Order of Worship on one 8 ½ x 14 sheet and all announcements and calendar items on separate sheets.

We were blessed to hear a talented team of musicians who participated in the musical portion of the worship. The instruments included an oboe, cello, guitar, bass, flute, and saxophone. This special accompaniment was a joyful addition, and having the words of the choir’s special presentation printed in the bulletin also contributed greatly – the music is beautiful, but to me it’s the words that bring meaning to it.

It was a treat to hear Rev. Larry Ruby preach again. He taught during the Children’s Sermon, during the prayers, and especially during the sermon. He speaks animatedly with a gentle passion and sincere urgency. The Scripture reading was Philippians 2:12-30, but the sermon was based on only the first few verses. It was one of those sermons that contained so much that I had trouble remembering it all, but one point came through to me loud and clear: it was a remarkable example of how God puts just the right person with just the right background and experience in exactly the right place at precisely the right time. And I was grateful to be reminded of this because it was a message I needed to hear just now.