Photo: © Melanie Blagden and used under license A large converted warehouse, quite unassuming from the outside, in a retail park in Salford, a few miles from Manchester city centre. On the inside, about half the building is taken up with the auditorium, which would seat about 500 or so. The stage area has large screens at the back, onto which are projected the lyrics of the songs or the Bible verses being read. Outside the auditorium is the lobby area. There are a few seats, a little coffee stand, and some vending machines, and then separate rooms for the crèche and the kids' area, and some others that I took to be meeting rooms or classrooms.
The church community is very diverse, reflective of the diversity of Manchester as a city. They seem to be very well integrated with the city. They have small groups across Manchester, an apparently thriving youth group, and even a ministry for business people in the city centre. They also have a social action ministry that works with the unhoused in Manchester. !Audacious explicitly links itself to the Hillsong movement, and has a lot of the same distinguishing features.
The church is located outside the centre of Manchester, in a largely commercial area. They share a retail park with – among others – a boiler company. It isn't the most readily accessible place for those without cars; it's a half-hour walk from Deansgate station.
The worship band (seven-strong) led the musical element, while several different pastors (at my count, at least four) led the service and preached.
What was the name of the service?11:30 Service.
How full was the building?
About half full by 11.25, almost completely full by the end of the first song. There's a big range of ages, from little kids to older people, all worshipping together.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Two young women stood at a welcome desk at the entrance, explained that masks were optional, and gave me a little gift bag that they reserve for first-timers. While hanging around in the foyer before the service, I had a chat with an older lady while we waited for the auditorium to open.
Was your pew comfortable?
A cushioned desk chair. Nothing special, but perfectly comfortable for the 90 or so minutes I was there.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was loud music (a mix of contemporary Christian and secular – while in the toilets I was amused to have Fatboy Slim being piped into my cubicle) and lots of people chatting, hugging and dropping their kids off at the crèche.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Hi, Church, how are you doing?’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
No books, but the lyrics and Bible verses used were projected on several screens.
What musical instruments were played?
Keyboard, electric guitar, bass, drums (not kept in a big Plexiglas cage as drummers often are at churches like this).
Did anything distract you?
The audio was inexpertly mixed, sometimes making it difficult to understand what people were saying/singing. The lyrics onscreen weren't always in sync with what was being sung, which was a little inconvenient for me as I didn't know any of the songs.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Happy-clappy Pentecostal. There were lots of raised hands, people shouting out 'Hallelujah!' and 'Praise Jesus!' In typical British church style, the keen ones were down the front, dancing, giving standing ovations, and adding their own interjections at various points; the further back you moved, the quieter it became. Overall, there seemed to be a slight lack of energy from the congregation. It seems the summer slump affects all denominations equally!
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 — The preacher's style was very energetic, with a lot of repetition as is quite common in this church tradition. Very stirring and uplifting, and his passion was clear.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Reading from Hebrews 12:2. Our joy comes from what we focus on. If we focus on Jesus, we can have a joy that will not pass away.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
At one point during the service we prayed for one of the pastors, who is moving with his wife and child to Sheffield to establish a new church plant there. This felt sweet and quite heartfelt, and I wish them all well in their move.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The sermon, while uplifting and energetically given, was surface-level and almost indistinguishable from a motivational speech. The music was spirited and the people passionate, but there was an essential emptiness. One thing that truly rubbed me the wrong way was the two separate collections of money. Both were preceded by lengthy exhortations to give (the figure of £50 in one go was offered quite casually, as if this is an average individual donation), accompanied by promises of God's 'multiplication' of this offering. The so-called 'prosperity gospel' isn't explicitly preached, or at least it wasn't while I was there, but the extreme pressure to make large financial donations to the church left a nasty taste in my mouth all the same. There are many areas of inner-city Manchester where people live in grinding poverty. It strikes me as, at best, tacky to promise that by lining the church's coffers, they will be blessed financially in turn.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I had to leave sharpish after the service, as I was meeting a friend in town, but I was informed by the pastor at the end of the service that all newcomers were to turn left at the exit and go to the marquee, where they would be offered a free hot drink and a copy of the Bible, which seemed generous. To the right, regulars could buy a token for a bacon butty (what Americans call a BLT, but without the L or the T) and a go on the pop-up farm. I didn't stay long enough to find out what this entailed.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I can't speak for after-service coffee, but I bought a Tango from the vending machine outside beforehand, which was next to a little coffee shop stall. I assume the prices are just to cover costs (and were definitely cheaper than your average latte in Manchester), but this is the first church-cum-coffee shop I have been to and I'm not entirely sure how I feel about it.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 — I no longer live in Manchester, so I won't be able to make it on a Sunday even if I were able to.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
The congregation certainly did. Their passion for Christ and love for one another was palpable. The pastors? Not so much.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The two collection calls, and the barefaced cheek regarding money. I don't think that's what they meant by 'audacious'.