The current building dates back to the 1950s after the previous one was destroyed by fire, possibly due to an electrical fault. There has been some recent building work that can be seen from the front, with a new glass entrance over to the right hand side. Upon entering, one sees that the main hall has two columns of seating, separated by a central aisle that slopes down towards the front before reaching a low-rise stage. The wall at the very front of the church sports a rather large cross. The sides of the room were dotted with banners. The church appeared to be wheelchair accessible.
They have been meeting since the 1870s. Their ethos, which came through very strongly, is based around the acronym LIFE: Led by God; Investing in others; Family of diversity; Equip for frontline work. In addition to the Sunday meetings, the church holds small midweek groups, referred to as Lifegroups, a Mother and Toddler Group (Dads are welcome too), and a group for the over 70s. They collect food for the local food bank. The church also supports Ella's Home, a refuge for women who have been trafficked into the sex industry.
Balham is an increasingly gentrified district within the south London borough of Wandsworth. Situated between Clapham to the north and Tooting to the south, it is a popular area for those commuting into central London, which results in eye-watering property prices. The area's most famous resident is the comedian and self-styled "Night Mayor of Balham," Arthur Smith. The church is set into a terrace, along with restaurants and residential properties. Over the road was a public library with a small tent pitched outside.
Most of the service was led by Associate Pastor Jim Sutton, who also preached. The musical worship was led by Ogemi Ekwegh.
What was the name of the service?Morning Worship.
How full was the building?
With around 60 people present, the building was half full, though for some reason the left hand side of the church was more full than the right. The dress code was casual; Pastor Jim donned a short sleeve shirt that was buttoned all the way up.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was given a hearty handshake as I came in and was handed a notice sheet. After I took my seat, someone came over to say hello, spotting me as a newcomer. Very early in the service we were asked to greet one another, and I shook hands and exchanged brief pleasantries with about a dozen people.
Was your pew comfortable?
No. In spite of the pew-length leather cushions, it was quite uncomfortable seating. Towards the front of the church there were a few rows of chairs that looked a bit more comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was fairly quiet. People were talking but clearly making an effort to keep the volume down, as otherwise everyone would have been able to hear their conversation.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning. Welcome. Welcome. Welcome. No matter how many times I do this, I don't feel like I know what I'm doing."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The words to the songs were projected onto a single screen at the front of the church. Readings were taken from The Good News Bible, several copies of which were on the back of every pew. Over to my right, I spotted that some people had large print copies of the notice sheet, which also contained all the song lyrics and the scripture reading.
What musical instruments were played?
A piano, a 12 string acoustic guitar complete with rainbow strap, and drums. For one of the songs, the guitar was put down and a trumpet picked up in its place.
Did anything distract you?
Dangling from the ceiling were a star flanked by two crowns of thorns. The fact that there were two such crowns puzzled me immensely. Was there a particular meaning behind this seemingly symbolic piece? Was it saying that Jesus was the star and the two prisoners crucified beside him were represented by the crowns? It didn't seem to make sense to me. I was later informed that the sole reason there were two of them was to make the display symmetrical; there was no theological intent behind the number of crowns.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was very middle to low church. The service began with a few hymns. We then exchanged greetings with one another and sang more hymns, before the notices and prayers. The reading was given by a gentleman with one of the best voices I've ever heard. It was deep and rich, reminiscent of James Earl Jones; I could happily listen to him read the phonebook. Theirs is a faith that is taken seriously.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – Pastor Jim spoke clearly enough, with a strong Estuary English accent, but his talk lacked structure. Preaching as he did from notes on a tablet device, he gave one the impression that he had found various good sound bites and then sought to expand on each one.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Entitled "Rebuilding with Prayer," it was the start of a new series on the book of Nehemiah. It was prefaced by a video that gave an overview of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. The sermon itself began with a cringeworthy joke about the shortest person in the Bible, who Pastor Jim thought was knee-high-Miah; he evidently forgot about one of Job's comforters: Bildad the shoe-height. With that over, the more serious element of the sermon proceeded. Prayer is not about saying the right words in the right order; it is about where our hearts are. In the wake of tragedies, the hashtag #PrayFor always appears as a sign of solidarity, but how many of those not directly affected truly have their hearts broken by the pain of the tragedy? What is it that burdens you, that puts you off your food or keeps you awake at night? It could be something local, national or international. Jesus came to reform our minds and change the way we interact with the world around us. Our hearts need to be open to be changed by God. Listen to the still, small voice.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The intercessory prayers were really well done. There was a range of subjects that were really prayed into rather than simply being mentioned. These included prayers for those affected by the recent Hurricane Irma, which had affected this particular congregation; one couple were in Cuba but had made contact to say they were safe, while others had family in the Caribbean. Prayers were also said for the Rohingya Muslims being persecuted in Myanmar, for those still recovering from the Manchester bombing, and for those affected by the fire at Grenfell Tower. More locally, they prayed for a woman known to the church who was homeless. I wondered if she was the owner of the tent I saw outside the library across the road. Each of the prayers ended with a sung refrain, led by one of the musicians playing a recorder. It was all very well-paced and heart-felt. It felt less like prayer as one of several parts of a meeting, but more as a way of breathing that was integral to the way this church lives.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The worship band were not exactly slick and professional. They were all playing to a slightly different time, giving the impression that they hadn't practised much together. Pastor Jim, though, expressed praise for the band, saying that they felt "retro."
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Someone came to say hello to me and we were engaged in conversation for a short while. I then got stuck, as I was in the middle of the pew while people blocked either end for quite some time. It would have been undignified to climb over the pew, so I just sat patiently for a bit.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I didn't get the chance to sample it, as I was heading out for coffee and cake straight afterwards.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – The emphasis on prayer here was nigh on monastic, which I like a lot.
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 beautiful voice of the man who did the reading.