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3244: Celebration Lutheran, Peoria, Arizona, USA
Celebration Lutheran, Peoria, AZ (Exterior)
Mystery Worshipper: Lou M. Christie.
The church: Celebration Lutheran, Peoria, Arizona, USA.
Denomination: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
The building: A rather plain rustic-looking building on a shady plot of ground. The interior is plain, with grey cement block walls and a simple altar behind which hang a projection screen and some draperies.
The church: They have a youth group who hold a number of activities. There is a health ministry that offers blood pressure checks and visitation. They take on a different mission-based activity each month. They sponsor a food pantry and chapters of Alcoholics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous. A congregation called At His Feet meets in the building on Tuesday and Sunday evenings. Each Sunday, Celebration Lutheran has an early traditional service and a later (quoting from their website) “worship service that seeks to begin with a focus on the individual relationship with God, and then move us to an outward looking expression of and response to our faith” – in other words, a contemporary service described in about 15 times too many words. Sunday school is held between the two services.
The neighborhood: Celebration Lutheran is located on Olive Avenue very near the ring road known as the Loop 101, in this western suburb of Phoenix. There is nothing special about the area – some apartment complexes, strip malls, and a few other churches.
The cast: The Revd Harold Stromer, interim pastor. He was nattily dressed in a brown clerical shirt with Roman collar and pectoral cross, grey slacks, and brown shoes. He did not vest.
The date & time: Sunday, October 22, 2017, 8.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Traditional Worship Service. Their website states that it “follows a fun and upbeat setting.” Uh-oh, I thought. What have I gotten myself into? Well, you are about to find out, dear reader!

How full was the building?
There were about 100 chairs and I counted about 30 people – mostly late middle age to early elderly couples. There was only one family with two small children; no teenagers or other young folk.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
There was no one at the door. However, after I sat down, the pastor came up to me and introduced himself; we chatted a bit. Several people shook my hand, said hello and welcome, and introduced themselves; among these were Joanne, Brad, Glenn, and another Brad. At the exchange of peace, just about everyone shook my hand and said how glad they were that I had come. One of the Brads asked me if I’d be back but didn’t wait for an answer.

Was your pew comfortable?
Padded chair – comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The band were rehearsing. People greeted each other and some chatted quietly.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
“Good morning and welcome to Celebration.”

What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. Everything was projected. The readings were from The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version.

What musical instruments were played?
Electronic keyboard, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, vocalist. I saw no evidence of a piano or organ. The band dressed very informally: t-shirts and shorts for the men, t-shirts and jeans for the women.

Did anything distract you?
Over a door were the letters “FACP.” So far as I know, that abbreviation stands for “Fellow, American College of Physicians.” I wondered what relevance the abbreviation had to the door or the room behind it (was it an infirmary?) or if it stood for something else.

Celebration Lutheran, Peoria, AZ (Interior)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It pretty much followed the standard Western liturgical format. However, the music, far from “traditional” as advertised, was of the lite-rock folksy kind. I thought the Kyrie was especially fey: “Kyrie – every day” and that sort of thing. The version of “Amazing Grace” sung at communion bore no relation to the traditional New Britain tune and included unnecessary additional words that destroyed the flow of John Newton’s beautiful text. At communion we received a rectangular piece of whole wheat bread, which we intincted into one of two chalices: one (I assume) holding wine and the other grape juice, although there was no indication of which was which. Gluten-free wafers were also available.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
18 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Pastor Stromer spoke from notes but his style was very relaxed and conversational. I thought he communicated well.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Entitled “In the grip of grace,” it was the last in a series of five sermons about grace. We live in a broken world filled with ungrace. Grace shown to others through us offers a way out. It transcends nature. The grace-driven Christian loves his fellow humans through the grime and dirt. He leaves behind a legacy of smiles by his kind words, thoughts and actions. He puts a “grace spin” on things, seeing all in a favorable light. The world has a need for grace, but not a full-scale frontal assault – rather, “guerilla grace,” “drippings of grace,” a steady undertow of grace. Nothing is possible without the grace of God.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
My overall impression was of a loving and gentle worship experience. I could feel grace at work. I especially liked how friendly everyone seemed without being pushy.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I was expecting ample portions of Bach and Luther in a “traditional” service but was very disappointed that all I got was a heavy dose of the vapid ditties to which Western liturgical music has descended.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I am not good at hiding my feelings, and I really didn’t want to have to tell this congregation what I thought of their music, so I slipped out during the final blessing.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
As I left, I noticed an array of cookies and other goodies spread out on a table in the lobby, but I didn’t sample any of them.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – This is a very hard call to make. I was impressed by the friendliness and openness of this congregation, the gentleness and joy of their worship, and the quality of the preaching, but I simply can’t take that style of music. I’m sorry. I’ll be back when some wealthy parishioner donates a good quality digital organ and they hire an organist who can play Bach and knows how to lead congregational singing – they do exist; I know several.

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 gentle joy of grace that pervaded the room.
 
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