For Mystery Worship Number Two, I picked the Sunday Evening Contemporary Worship service at Park Avenue United Methodist Church on the upper east side of New York City,
After an afternoon near midtown, I arrived by taxi about 6:15 pm for 6:30 worship.. I found the doors of the church wide open with a greeter there ready to say hi and offer me a simple order of worship. The bulletin was simple, one/half sheet, printed in color.
Like many churches in NYC, the building is just one of many offices, restaurants, shopping and residential spots all right next to each other. There was a banner perpendicular to the building high off the street to help me identify my destination. It would have been easy to have missed it otherwise, even with looking closely for it.
This church was founded in 1837, and the current facility built in 1926, designed by the same architect who designed the famed and elegant Riverside Church on the West Side. They originally owned the apartment complex next door and hoped to use that to secure their financial future, but had to sell it in the Great Depression.
Inside, I found a lovely traditional church, not terribly comfortable dark wooden pews, elegant chancel area, soaring ceilings with arches along the side. I did not get a look at the full facility, the restrooms or the children’s areas. However, their website indicates a day school there, so I would assume excellent facilities for the little ones. More description of the sanctuary and its historic design can be found on the church website here.
I entered to the sound of the worship team (piano, guitar, two vocalists) in rehearsal. Drawn by the music, I seated myself near the front of the nearly empty space. I also noticed the screen there would be too small to see well from the back.
The lead female vocalist was spectacular in rehearsal, offering clear soprano sounds like droplets cascading over a beautiful waterfall. Just being in those moments settled my soul.
With a sanctuary that would easily seat 280, only about 15 to 20 were at worship, mostly young, racially diverse.
Before worship formally began, The Rev. Mandy Iahn, Associate Pastor and the Celebrant for the service, came to me and introduced herself and offered another warm welcome to this time.
We began with a few moments of silence to find our internal quiet and centering spaces. Then the worship team lead forth and did not disappoint. Words for the contemporary Christian worship songs were displayed on the small screen.
Unfortunately, they don’t have good projection hardware or software, and could not move seamlessly from song to song, song to Scripture, or song to the video that began the message. Technology should support worship, but be essentially invisible otherwise or it breaks the flow of the service, which is exactly what happened here.
The message and video centered on the human theme of “What have you done for me lately?” Rev. Iahn has picked various pieces of pop music to see how they speak to us and how they may be used as bridges to the Holy One.
In her message, she reminded us of our tendency to insist that God do for us what we want, without being mindful of the love that God is always pouring out on humankind. I noticed that she read the sermon. She read well, not woodenly, but clearly tied to her script.
After the message, Rev. Iahn led us in a short, contemporary Service of Holy Communion (no general confession or pardon), and all were invited to partake of the elements. Afterward, we prayed together a modern version of The Lord’s Prayer, beginning with “Our Father and Mother in Heaven.”
A final, and especially lovely piece of music, followed encouraging contemplation of the Holy One, and then we were dismissed with the request that we pass the peace and greet one another on the way out.
At this time, I was able to meet the Senior Pastor, The Rev. Dr. Cathy Gilliard, as well as others and I enjoyed the conversation time.
After meeting Dr. Gilliard, I was told that morning worship features a full choir and traditional liturgy and learned a little more about the mission of the church. They are engaging in a challenging ministry in a community that does not have much interest in any kind of worship or practices that lead to spiritual growth or renewed intimacy with God. A tough calling.
A few critiques:
The website has much great information about the church, but needs some tweaks.. On the Mac I am using to access the Internet, some of the pages show fonts that are hard to read, the announcement page and the calendar page don’t show.
As I mentioned above, the projection technology needs work. The service itself is lovely, but people drawn to contemporary music also have high expectations of the technology used to support it, and those expectations were not met.
Would I return? Yes, the welcome was warm and the language familiar and the theology more my own. I think most of us are drawn to the familiar in worship which is one of the reasons churches have such a difficult time adjusting to changing times. I know I enjoyed it more than I did the morning service I wrote about here although they were similar in form and the morning service had several other advantages.
So more than anything, it was the comfort of the language that spoke to me. This is going to be the ongoing challenge of those who want to invite people into the experience of worship: if the language and customs and rituals are extremely foreign to those coming for the first time, it us unlikely they will return. Just not worth the effort to learn a completely different language to participate. And with fewer and fewer children and teens being exposed to some of the Latin terms and archaic grammatical constructions of many of the more traditional hymns, fewer will have any comfort with those forms.