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2109: Augustana Lutheran, Portland, Oregon, USA
Augustana Lutheran, Portland, Oregon
Mystery Worshipper: Metanoiac.
The church: Augustana Lutheran, Portland, Oregon, USA.
Denomination: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Oregon Synod.
The building: A large, traditional, brick church building that looks (not surprisingly) much like other large, traditional brick church buildings in this city. The interior was nicely decorated with candles and trees, but otherwise unremarkable – except for the interesting Native American prayer banner hanging on one wall in the front.
The church: This church has four services each Sunday: one for those who like a more contemporary feel (guitars, snare drums, etc); one for those who like the traditional Lutheran feel (pipe organ, robed choir, traditional worship book, etc); one for Native American Christians (flute, drumming, sage burning, etc); and a jazz/gospel service. This church also does a lot of community service and social justice work.
The neighborhood: Located in rainy Portland, it sits on a moderately busy corner in the Irvington neighborhood among upper middle class homes, with high-end shops not far away.
The cast: The Revd WJ Mark Knutson, senior pastor, assisted by more than two dozen choir, liturgical, and other assistants throughout the service. There was also a visiting Episcopal priest there, but her name was announced so quickly I didn't catch it.
The date & time: Christmas Eve, December 24, 2010, 11.00pm.

What was the name of the service?
Candelight Carol Service with Organ and Choir.

How full was the building?
There were a few empty seats but no empty pews that I could see. Having been to other "midnight" services where one felt as if packed into a stale airplane, it was nice to have a little elbow room.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A somewhat Scrooge-like man grumbled "Merry Christmas" and handed me a bulletin, while a smiling teenage boy beamed "Merry Christmas" as he handed me a small white candle.

Was your pew comfortable?
It was a traditional Protestant wooden pew, without kneelers – and yes, it was comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was friendly chattering among those coming in and those already seated. The advertisement for the service said there would be singing for the half hour before the service, but no one sang until about 15 minutes 'til, when some choir members got up and sang a song and then just stood there unmoving for several more minutes. We were among those confused about what was going on. Were we supposed to be reverent? Were they waiting for something? Was there something else we were supposed to do? But once the service started everyone was attentive.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Only the bulletin, which had all the words to the traditional Christmas carols as well as the order of liturgical events, printed within. There was an Evangelical Lutheran Worship book and The Holy Bible, New International Version in the pew back, but no one used them.

What musical instruments were played?
Someone played a Native American flute while someone else read the first two dozen or so verses from the book of John. After that, they only used handbells and the pipe organ. At the beginning and end of the service, someone rang the large church bell as well.

Did anything distract you?
Choir members apparently do not have assigned seating (except in the back balcony, which wasn't used), and so after each number they would wander individually back to whatever pew in the church happened to be seating their families or friends. Then, when it was time for them to sing again, they would all file back up, sing, and then scatter back among the pews again. The choir member who happened to be sitting ahead of us left and came back three times during the service before she disappeared entirely. Also, when I went to communion, someone had dropped their wafer into the wine cup, which seemed fully to embarrass the young woman offering it. It gave me a moment of pause, but then I just continued on.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Although this was a traditional service (except for the Native American flute, I suppose), the worship atmosphere was friendly, happy, open, and relaxed, all without losing the mood of the occasion. During his sermon, for example, the pastor fairly beamed friendly joy all over those in attendance.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
21 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – I gave the pastor an additional point for his friendly enthusiasm, but he did go on a bit too long, listing example after example after example until I truthfully zoned off about 15 minutes in, only awakening to mark the number of minutes he'd spoken. Personally, I don't mind a longer sermon; it was the too-numerous examples that sank my attention span.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
"All are welcome at the manger". Much of the sermon mentioned social justice topics that are most current in the church and world today.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I really enjoyed singing all the traditional Christmas carols with so many who were obviously also enjoying singing them.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The wandering choir members and the too-many-points sermon were the worst, but we also suffered from an overly enthusiastic opera singer wannabe behind us who seemed to make it her mission to ensure no one ever lost their place in any song.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The crowd basically pushed us with it out the front doors, where we found ourselves at 15 minutes past midnight surrounded by a few dozen people loudly yelling, "Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!" out into the neighborhood, like folks who've stumbled out of a sports stadium. One woman (who wasn't participating) turned to me and commented that she hoped the neighbors were forgiving, and I agreed. Because we were embarrassed, we left without standing around much longer.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There wasn't any available.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – If I were a Lutheran, I would very much consider making this my home church. The friendly atmosphere, community involvement, and racial and other kinds of diversity here are very inviting.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It did indeed.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The open, diverse, friendliness of this community.
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