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2759: Royal Palms Baptist, Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Royal Palms Baptist, Phoenix, AZ (Exterior)
Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwythe.
The church: Royal Palms Baptist, Phoenix, Arizona, USA.
Denomination: Arizona Southern Baptist Convention, Central Association.
The building: A modern A-frame structure with arches in the façade that give it somewhat of a neoclassical look. Inside, one finds a large room with white walls, a wood floor, and a stage up front that sported a Nativity scene complete with wreath, lighted tree, and wrapped gifts marked Spouse, Money, Future, Job, Worry, etc.
The church: They seem very family oriented, with a number of groups for youth, young adults and families. These include YACKs (Young Adults and College Kids), Anchor (Bible study for young singles), and Families of Faith (which just finished a series called "Raising Boys & Girls"). There are several small Bible study groups that meet at church on Sundays or in members’ homes during the week. Special mention goes to their support of SISTER Ministries, an outreach to women released from incarceration that provides help with food, housing, employment, and spiritual counseling. Their Sunday morning service is preceded by Bible study.
The neighborhood: The church is located on 19th Avenue just south of Dunlap Avenue, a working class residential neighborhood. At present, the area is torn up for construction of the Phoenix light rail extension, a project that seems to be taking forever – as did the original light rail construction, to the detriment of businesses along the route.
The cast: The Revd Chris Chandler, pastor. The musicians were not identified.
The date & time: Sunday, September 14, 2014, 10.30am.

What was the name of the service?
Morning Worship.

How full was the building?
I counted 275 chairs and they were about two-thirds full – mostly a young to middle aged crowd. Most people sat toward the front.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Not at first. Their website states that newcomers may "expect a friendly usher to provide directions around our campus." However, I arrived a half hour before the scheduled service time to find a parking lot full of cars but a campus empty of people. Their website also states that the coffee bar, which they call Holy Grounds, closes at 10.30, but I saw no evidence of its existence – shucks, as I had a hankering for a donut and some iced tea. I entered the church through the back door to find an empty sanctuary save for one gentleman and two or three people fiddling with the sound and lighting equipment. Things changed later on, though – see the pre-service atmosphere question below.

Was your pew comfortable?
Standard metal conference room chairs with beige upholstery – yes, they were comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
About 20 minutes before the start time, children entered from the Sunday school followed by the adults. The children had a grand old time running around, hopping and jumping, while the adults visited with each other. Several people came up to me, introduced themselves, asked me if it was my first time there, and said that if there was anything they could do for me to please let them know.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, everybody. Time to get started."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Holy Bible, New International Version, was in the pews, but there were no readings from scripture included in the service. Words to the songs were projected onto screens.

What musical instruments were played?
Piano (rather out of tune, I’m afraid), two acoustic guitars, drums. There were two vocalists, a gentleman and a lady.

Did anything distract you?
The Nativity scene in the middle of ordinary time was a distraction. The pastor later explained that it was left over from a program that a group had put on about gifts for God. During one of the songs, the singers pronounced "Hosanna" to rhyme with "bandana." Also during the songs, two women across the aisle from me kept up an incessant chatter.

Royal Palms Baptist, Phoenix, AZ (Interior)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A fairly sedate hymn sandwich. The music was all of the lite Christian rock variety, with one exception noted below. There were one or two people who raised their hands and swayed about a little bit, but most of the others just kept still and listened. Some prayers were recited, but one series of prayers entitled "Prayerful Commitments" were projected for us to read silently while music played softly. What surprised me, though, was that there were no readings given from the Bible.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
36 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The pastor’s sermon was a discussion of a book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, by Thom S. Rainer. I thought the subject matter was very interesting indeed, but Pastor Chris’s speaking style could have made do with a bit more variation and dramatics.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It has been estimated that only ten per cent of all churches are healthy. Forty per cent show signs of illness; another forty per cent are seriously sick; and a final ten per cent are at the point of death. There are commonalities to be found among all failing churches: inward focus, slow erosion, no sense of commitment to the community, no outreach, no clear purpose, no prayer life, neglect of the Great Commission. To survive, failing churches must first admit that there is a problem. They must pray for wisdom, be willing to change, and turn their focus outward. They must not be afraid to evangelize. They must welcome newcomers, not be seen as a clique of "holy huddles" hostile to new members. They must not be afraid to let go of the past.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The one song that was not of the lite Christian Rock style took me completely by surprise. It was that oldie but goodie "Sweet Hour of Prayer." I can’t tell you how long it’s been since I’ve heard that sung – I can’t count that far back! It was the one song that everybody joined in singing – and in four-part harmony to boot! It was truly heavenly!

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Nothing really stooped to that level, but if I have to quibble, I will mention something that happened at the end of the service that struck me as odd in light of the pastor’s sermon. Pastor Chris mentioned that there was a young couple who were leaving the church (but for good reasons – the commute every Sunday had become too much for them and they had found a church closer to home), and that a "love offering" would be taken up for them to help speed them on their way. The couple had been very active in various church groups, and will be sorely missed. The love offering was a heartfelt vote of gratitude and best wishes, but still I thought it rather odd.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The couple who were leaving the church adjourned to the rear, where a receiving line of sorts had formed to wish them well. Not knowing them, and not having contributed to their love offering, I did not join the line. A lady came up to me and said that she had noticed me taking notes. "Are you one of those people who go around reporting on churches?" she asked. Uh-oh! Discovered! We chatted a bit, but no one else seemed to show an interest in me and so I slipped out a side door.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Nothing on offer after the service. I would have enjoyed a visit to Holy Grounds earlier, though, if I had been able to find it.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I wasn’t brought up in the Baptist tradition, and I would miss weekly communion and a sense of liturgy. But I was moved by the sincerity of this community, their open friendliness, and their willingness to take a deep introspective look at themselves as a church.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The love offering given the couple who were leaving.
 
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