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3214: Maranatha Baptist, Peoria, Arizona, USA
Maranatha Baptist, Peoria, AZ
Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwythe.
The church: Maranatha Baptist, Peoria, Arizona, USA.
Denomination: Independent Fundamentalist Baptist.
The building: A modern complex of rooms, oblong and rather plain, not looking much like a church from the outside save for a large cross on one of the walls. Inside, the sanctuary is hexagonal in shape, with unadorned white walls and blue carpeting. On a stage were several chairs and tiered choir seating. A wooden communion table, recognizable only from the carved inscription "This do in remembrance of me," and pulpit were at the front of the stage. Again, there was little to indicate a church until the projection screen was raised, revealing a round stained glass window depicting a cross.
The church: They have a number of ministries for children, teens and adults, all described on their website. These include Bible study and prayer groups as well as opportunities for fellowship. They recently sponsored a mission trip to South Africa. An announcement was made concerning a ministry to hospitals and the homebound that was being formed, as well as an outreach to police and fire stations. There are three worship services each Sunday: early morning, late morning, and evening.
The neighborhood: Peoria is a sprawling western suburb of Phoenix. The church is located on Olive Avenue at 95th Avenue, very near the ring road known as the Loop 101 and the dry river bed known as the New River (dry, that is, for most of the year, but wet in summer when rains are more common). This part of Peoria is not a particularly remarkable neighborhood – some apartment complexes, strip malls and fast food joints are the main attractions.
The cast: Peter Lopez, senior pastor, led most of the prayers, made announcements, and preached. Gene Noel, assistant pastor, led the closing prayer. Both pastors looked quite natty in conservative suits, dress shirts and ties.
The date & time: Sunday, August 13, 2017, 8:45am.

What was the name of the service?
Early Morning Worship.

How full was the building?
I counted room for about 250 and it was pretty much full. A goodly mix of youth, men and women of all ages. Independent Fundamentalist Baptists dress conservatively, even though the church’s website states that there is no dress code and the main goal is for visitors to feel welcome and comfortable. Nevertheless, Miss Amanda had selected one of her more conservative outfits, and was glad she did. Everyone was very smartly dressed in their Sunday best. One lady especially caught my attention, elegantly attired in a black and white patterned dress and white hat. Ladies are always correct in hats – a fashion rule that most modern-day ladies seem to have forgotten.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Several people shook my hand and said hello, welcome, good to see you, glad you came. Jon Kucik, youth pastor, made a special point of welcoming me; he described the church’s services and activities at length and said I was welcome to attend Sunday school after the service.

Was your pew comfortable?
Padded wooden pew – it was OK. I’ve sat in better, I’ve sat in worse.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Lots of greeting, kissing, visiting, conversations, etc. The choir were rehearsing, and when they were done they stepped down off the stage and mingled. The pianist played a medley of camp meeting style inspirational songs – very upbeat. As service time approached, the choir resumed their places, and as they stood for the opening song everyone immediately fell silent.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
An opening song from the choir that began with the words, “You are good, you are good, when there’s nothing good in me.” When they were finished singing, a gentleman announced, “And it’s your turn to sing. Turn in your hymnals, if you would, to number 482 and please stand.” Number 482 was (appropriately) entitled “I Stand Amazed.”

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Songs and Hymns of Revival and The Holy Bible, King James Version, which is the only version this denomination uses. We were handed an announcement sheet as we entered, but it consisted only of announcements. In each pew were several “Connection Cards” that newcomers could fill out.

What musical instruments were played?
Grand piano, which will need a visit from the tuner before long. A digital piano on the opposite side of the stage remained silent. There was a mixed choir of 22 people. Independent Fundamentalist Baptists use only traditional music in worship, avoiding rock band instruments and the musical style usually associated with them. I’d say the songs ranged from the traditional (“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”) to camp meeting to easy listening Christian.

Did anything distract you?
I thought I spotted my Spanish instructor from school, but I was mistaken. Same hairdo and glasses, though. A young gentleman in the congregation sported a Kim Jong-un haircut – one of those cuts where it seems the barber wasn’t tall enough to reach the top of the gentleman’s head, so he made up for it by cutting the sides and back extra short while leaving the top alone.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A hymn sandwich, Baptist style: opening choir anthem, hymn, meet and greet, opening prayer, hymn, sermon, altar call, closing prayer.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
35 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Pastor Lopez spoke clearly and was very easy to follow, but I thought he had a tendency to shout, which became tiring.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The pastor’s text was James 1:26 (faith vs the appearance of religion). It’s easy to seem to be religious. Putting on all the external trappings of religion can even make you feel religious. But they can also lead to boasting or feelings of superiority. True faith is not something you put on – it begins from within and works its way out. If there is any area of your life that you are deliberately keeping from God, it negates all else. Some people think that “little sins” are OK so long as we avoid the “big sins.” But there is no such thing as “acceptable sin” – God doesn’t classify sin as such. Religion does not bring a person close to God – a relationship with Jesus does. Faith focuses on God, not on us. We will never be perfect, but if we are genuine and sincere, our faith will make us more like Christ. True faith is true love of God, and that leads to true love for others. God will encourage us in our faith.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Any church that considers “rock concert as church” not to be church at all has to be one that has a special place reserved for it in heaven.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Why do pastors keep their congregations standing during announcements? We stood for the concluding prayer, and then remained standing while the pastor read an interminable series of announcements. “Please be seated for some announcements” is so easy to say.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was an altar call in which persons “who felt the Spirit moving” could come forward, and several did. The pastor said that he and his wife would be standing at the back to greet newcomers and collect their Connection Cards. I had badly to use the facilities, and when I emerged I saw that the pastor was engaged in speaking to someone else, and so I slipped by unnoticed. A few people smiled and waved good-bye as I headed toward the Amandmobile.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none – Sunday school was announced as beginning in the fellowship hall, but I did not attend.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – It’s not really my style of worship, but it seemed sincere and no-nonsense without being dour. And the people seemed friendly without being overbearing.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. And it made me wonder if there are any areas of my life that I am deliberately keeping from God.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The young gentleman with the Kim Jong-un haircut.
 
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