They meet in a conference room in the Wellington Park Hotel. The room is large and airy, and reminded me of an airport lounge: cheap carpet, fake plants along the sides, high ceilings, mostly white decor with some blue curtains covering the windows. They made good use of light, however, and the room felt comfortable enough.
Abundant Life Belfast is a satellite. In fact, they describe themselves as "one church, three locations", the others being based in Leeds and Bradford. They also aim to be "non-religious, naturally supernatural and incredibly fun to be in." They have an initiative titled "Love Belfast" which is a practical outreach on the streets providing food and pastoral support to passers-by and those in need. They also have active youth ministries and groups that meet at members' houses to discuss their faith and do work in the community. On a Sunday the church holds two services: at 11.00am and 6.00pm.
A hive of student activity situated right in the middle of the Queen's University area of the city. There are also tourist attractions such as museums and the botanic gardens nearby. There are two very popular pubs/nightclubs right on the doorstep, and the Belfast Islamic Centre is a stone's throw away too.
The service was led entirely by young people whose names were not published; most of them appeared to be teens. The sermon was given by Steve Gambill, an American (not a teenager) who founded the youth ministry.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Evening Service
How full was the building?
There were around 70 or so people, and there was plenty of room for some more.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A girl greeted me near the entrance and offered to show me to a place. Once inside, a guy named Trevor came over and introduced himself, asking if I was a visitor. He said I was very welcome.
Was your pew comfortable?
The seat was great almost too comfortable actually.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The room was darkened somewhat and this made me feel there was going to be a concert. I wasn't too wide of the mark.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Well, good evening, everyone, and welcome back to church."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
What musical instruments were played?
There were an electric piano, three guitars, a drum kit, and four vocalists. There was no stage area so the floor was strewn with wires and large amps and other electrical gear.
Did anything distract you?
The music was incredibly loud and I couldn't help worrying that some of the hotel guests might be annoyed at the racket. Also, I noticed Steve's shoelace was loose and I thought he might trip on it. There was a light coming from the projector and it kept blinking at me throughout the evening.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The music was thumping. I didn't know any of the songs, but right from the off people were literally jumping up and down, waving their hands in the air, and clearly in a state of considerable ecstasy. The singers at the front were very slick and professional, and were obviously enjoying themselves tremendously. During the offering two guitarists hammered out a deliciously bass-heavy riff that would not be out of place at a rock concert. Every time someone came forward to say or do something, a huge "Whoop" went up from the crowd. It happened during the offering too.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – Steve spoke very quickly, paced a lot, and peppered his remarks with buzzwords like "cool" and "awesome". In fact, he reminded me of Bill and Ted of Excellent Adventure fame but he bore more than a little resemblance to actor Bill Pullman. His American accent was also a bit of a distraction.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He made me dizzy looking up lots of different references but his main theme, I think, was Romans 12:2 ("Do not conform to the pattern of this world..."). It was basically a collection of pithy human-interest stories with a spattering of comedy designed to encourage the people to get out there and "love Belfast" and be "world-changers". All of which is highly commendable, but his engagement with the text lacked any kind of rigour or imagination.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Definitely that gorgeous music. However, looking back, I realise that even though it was truly heavenly, for me it wasn't actually worship.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
When Steve, at the end, insisted on making us hold up our hands and declare "I will be a transformer" and "I will be a world-changer". Thank goodness no one I know could see me!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Despite the promising start, no one approached me when I left my seat and hovered around the lobby/coffee area. I was left to find my own way out.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The coffee was served in china cups and saucers but came from a dispenser, which means it had been in there quite a long time. The biscuits were dry and unfortunately chocolate-free.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – I loved the music, really loved it, but I can't get through the week on 45 minutes of interesting stories. I need some serious engagement with the text.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I was glad to be there but not in any spiritual sense.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The "whoops" from the crowd.