|551: Holy Trinity Brompton, London|
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Mystery Worshipper: Chameleon.
The church: Holy Trinity Brompton, London.
The building: On the outside, this is a standard, old and fairly dirty Victorian church building; a little larger than most perhaps, but nothing unusual. Double glass doors open the way into a mezzanine landing with stairs leading up to the church proper, and down to the toilets, bookshop and various other rooms. Inside the church, the ceiling was salmon-pink, with old-gold gilded beams over the chancel. Elsewhere the woodwork and walls were bright white, and the ceiling beams had large, bright golden bosses. On the front wall there was a heavily gilded wall painting of Jesus teaching the disciples. Above this was a large, intricate stained glass window. Overall, the decor here gave the impression of affluence, modernity, open space, and perhaps just a slight lack of taste?
The church: This is the home church of Nicky Gumbel, the father of Alpha. Aside from this exciting fact, the brochure suggests that many of the church membership are involved in different voluntary organisations, which offer support and practical help to different groups within the local area.
The cast: The service was lead by Nicky Lee, with Jamie Haith leading the worship. Jo Glen gave the talk.
What was the name of the service?
5.00pm informal evening service.
How full was the building?
The main body held about 300 people, and filled up fairly fast, although the stewards were showing people to empty seats for about 20 minutes after the service started. Upstairs, in the balcony, the service began with 30 or so people, sparsely distributed. By the end of the service, it looked fairly full, with closer to 100 people up there.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
As we wandered round the building, thinking about getting coffee before we went in, we met Simon the organist, who told us how to get into the church. When we mentioned coffee, he pointed us in the direction of the kitchen, and assured us that we could make coffee there. His friendly, welcoming and helpful attitude was a great start to the evening. Sadly things went downhill from there. Upon entering the church, we were handed service sheets by one of the unsmiling and mute welcomers. As the church was half-empty we found our own seats later a steward was taking people to any empty ones. When the service began, the leader asked that we take a moment to shake hands with those around us whom we didn't know. Three people around me shook my hand, introduced themselves, and said good evening, which was nice.
Was your pew comfortable?
I got a modern, light-coloured wooden chair to sit on. It was smooth, nicely rounded and fairly comfortable. The chairs were wide enough to give personal space, and the rows were set far enough apart to provide decent leg-room.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was a low hum as I entered, which gradually got louder. People were enthusiastically hugging and then sitting chatting with their friends. The worship band played softly until about quarter to, when they stopped, and we were invited to stand and worship. Probably about half the congregation remained sitting and chatting instead of joining in the pre-service worship. By this point the stewards were ushering people up the aisle in ones or twos, and pointing them to the few empty seats remaining.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening, and a very warm welcome to you."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
All the songs were shown on TV screens, which were large, visible and easy to read. The bible reading was Galatians 5:16-25, and came from the New International Version.
What musical instruments were played?
The worship leader sang and played guitar. He had two female backing singers, and a support band consisting of a guitarist, saxophonist (playing both tenor and alto), pianist and drummer.
Did anything distract you?
There was a woman a few rows in front wearing a short-sleeved neon pink jacket, with a purple long-sleeved shirt underneath. Every time she moved, my eyes were unwillingly drawn back to her. People were ushered to seats in the main body of the church throughout the worship, and up to the beginning of the talk. As I was sat near the back, they all walked right past me. During the talk people walked into the back, walked out again, and then reappeared in the balcony, which again drew my attention away from the service. The last arrival appeared 10 minutes before the end of the talk (so about 20 minutes before the end of the service) why couldn't they peruse the bookshop and wait for the next service?
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship started off sedately, became a little more lively, and quickly quietened down again. It felt slightly too well shaped, as if the group had agreed to lower the volume, and slow the pace right down on a certain song to make the mood emotional and spiritual. In fact, on this song, the leader became breathily intense as he spoke. Aside from this, the group were competent and obviously sincere in their worship of God. They used mostly choruses (where you repeat a line five times), and the TV screens made it clear what we were singing at any given time.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 She introduced a lot of analogies and different ideas into her talk, rather than picking a few and developing them in greater detail. She would also give an illustration, move on, and three ideas later pick it back up, which made her harder to follow. However, she was humorous; taking the mick out of both herself (a self-proclaimed technophobe) and Alpha (where she became a Christian).
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
When you become a Christian, you are transformed and live a new life. However, every day you are tugged in opposite directions by human nature and the Devil, versus God. The more we remember God, the more we give him a chance to act in our lives.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The warm welcome and directions to coffee we received from Simon the organist were wonderful. The worship was mostly lovely. It was great to have five or six songs in a row, instead of the song sandwich service. This way I got to think about what I was singing, get into the right frame of mind and talk to God about it. And as I said earlier the musicians and singers were proficient and happy to be there worshipping God. The saxophonist, in particular, played some wonderful improvisations.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
We "gave God a clap", to show him how good he was. How trite; how naff; how cringe-worthy. My feelings of dislike for this were compounded by the fact that we had previously given the speaker a clap, because she was good (Nicky Gumbel told us she was, so it must be true). She was applauded half as long as God was, leading me to conclude that God is twice as good as she is. I was bewildered about 20 minutes into the talk, as she introduced her 17th idea or analogy (I was counting). By 30 minutes, her pace, and her ability to drop ideas, and return to them later gave me brain overload. And looking at my numerous notes later I despaired of ever reducing all her different themes etc. into a nutshell for this report.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
All three people who had introduced themselves at the beginning of the service left fairly quickly. I followed the milling throng to the back and detached myself while they swept through the doors. Standing next to a badge-wearing steward and looking lost, I reasoned, must get me noticed. But no. He walked round me a few times, and even caught my eye twice, before looking away without returning my friendly smile. No one in the crowd piling through the doors would make eye-contact either. I felt ignored, unwelcome and left out, as everyone else obviously knew what was happening next, but wouldn't tell me. Eventually, I decided to go to the loos and make my escape. Upon going downstairs, I discovered that this was where everyone else had gone, to get coffee. The coffee-makers were polite, and pointed me towards sugar, then moved on to the next person in the queue. Standing alone in the middle of the room, I noticed all the other lonely people, interspersed with the groupings of friends, and felt unwelcome and inconvenient.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The coffee was good; hot, caffeinated and just the right strength. Sadly, there were no biscuits or cakes.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 I might go occasionally for the worship, and possibly for the teaching (HTB's size and reputation enable it to pull in well-known, good Christian speakers). But I would definitely not take some friends along, because feeling like a spare part as I did was horrible. And to me, church is about relationships, friendliness and open, welcoming arms as well as quality of teaching.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Ultimately, no. I felt too defensive and angry by the time I drove away. Had you asked me this after the worship, or even after the talk, I would have probably said yes.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The neon-pink and purple combination several rows in front of me.