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520: Friendship Missionary Church, Charlotte, NC, USA
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Friendship Missionary Baptist
Mystery Worshipper: St Charles Borromeo.
The church: Friendship Missionary Baptist, Charlotte, NC, USA.
Denomination: Baptist – dually aligned with both the National Baptist Convention, USA, and the American Baptist Church.
The building: A large, 1970s, typical American Protestant barn: buff colored brick and light wood, with padded pews and carpet. One of my friends describes these type of churches as "God's living room". It seats about 1,000 or so, with 850 downstairs and 150-200 in the balcony.
The church: The church's name is very appropriate. For a church with a membership of 4,200-plus baptized members, it has the feeling of a family. It is probably the friendliest church I have ever been to.
The neighbourhood: The church takes up a block which bridges a business area with a residential one. The church campus takes up most of one city block, and they own 112 acres (debt free, according to church flyers) across the street. They are planning to build there a new sanctuary, a retirement high rise, a little shopping center and athletics fields. The current campus will be used for the Christian Academy (from kindergarten to grade 12) that the church is getting ready to open.
The cast: Rev. Dr Clifford A. Jones, Sr., senior pastor; minister Gwen Cohen (one of the many associate pastors); Tony McNeill, minister of music; plus a cast of several deacons and deaconesses who led prayers and did the announcements and welcome.
What was the name of the service?
Celebration of worship.

How full was the building?
Bulging at the seams. The church seats about 1,000 in the pews, but they also put out folding chairs in the aisles and those were mostly filled, too.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I know several people who are members at Friendship, so they greeted me with hugs, but the other church members gave hearty handshakes and many people extended words of welcome. The ushers handing out bulletins were very cordial.

Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was a typical non-liturgical American Protestant padded one, built for comfort, which is needed in a service that can easily run for 1.5 hours.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was a lot of visiting and conversation, but it hushed as the organist began the prelude.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
As the choir entered the choir loft in the front of the church and the ministers and deacons took their seats on the platform, the organ built up into a grand crescendo. The minister, Gwen Cohen took her spot at the pulpit and said, "Please join me in the opening prayer," and the organ backed down to some of the softest string stops.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The words to the congregational hymns were printed in the bulletin, along with their number from the hymnal if people chose to follow along. The hymnal used was The New National Baptist Hymnal. There were pew Bibles (RSV) in the rack, but everyone had their own Bible with them.

What musical instruments were played?
Pipe organ, hammond organ (for the gospel selections), grand piano, electric bass and drums.

Did anything distract you?
I was amazed by the hats the some of the ladies wore! They obviously love to dress up for church, and they must spend some serious money on their millinery. Those hats had sequins and feathers all over. It amazed me!

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
African-American churches are known for their expressive styles of worship. As I am from an evangelical background, I am also used to displays of emotion. The opening prayer and hymn were fairly formal, but as the service progressed, the congregation began to loosen up and they got happy during the choir's three different offerings, and when the pastor got fired up during the sermon, they began to shout "amen!" and waved their hands in the air. All in all, I would say the worship was "free." Some people sat still and quiet, while others expressed their emotions. This is a church where you can express yourself as the Holy Spirit leads you, as long as it isn't disruptive.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
35 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Pastor Jones is one of the two or three best preachers in Charlotte. He is regularly seen on television locally and is in demand as a speaker.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon, entitled "In the meantime," was based on Jeremiah 29:7 and 10-11. It was about hope while we wait for God's plans to actualize. The basic points were: seeing God's hand in times of strife; God teaching us during our times of trial; that God knows how much we can bear and will never give us too much; and that we gain strength through our trials. We have to live knowing that God has everything worked out, so we should be a blessing to others and submit to God, because "in the meantime" God is blessing us. All in all, a very interesting presentation, comparing the trials we face today to the trials that the ancient Jews faced during their time in Babylon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The music. The choir sang several pieces during the service, from old-fashioned gospel to contemporary. The organist played Bach, and there was some lusty congregational hymn singing. All this came straight from the heart and was presented as an offering to God.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The mass confusion in the hallways following the service. The church is a haven of activity, which is good, but makes entering and leaving the service quite difficult. It reminded me of herding cattle for the slaughter.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was no time to hang around. Once the service is over, the congregation exits out the doors at the front of the sanctuary, so the worshippers for the next service can enter from the rear doors. There are only a few minutes between services. People visit in the hallways of the building or outside on the church lawn. Following the service, many people thanked me for attending and invited me back.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – even though I am not Baptist, I could easily be a regular attendee or member here.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Most definitely. This is a warm and friendly community of Christians who love to worship and who love each other. A great example of what being a Christian really is.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The feeling of family that this church has.
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