The Vineyard takes place in the premises of Fleming Fulton School in South Belfast. The building itself is not much to behold from the outside – it is a fairly large sprawling complex of shabby white squareish units that actually reminded me more of a hospital than a school. Once I was inside, my initial impressions were further reinforced when I visited the bathroom and was sure I had entered a hospital ward. The service itself took place in a gym hall, which has huge white sliding curtains that are very similar to those you find in, yes, the hospital.
There were two things that attracted me to this church: the promise of doughnuts (see below), and a very commendable project started by this church called Storehouse. Storehouse involves asking people to think about the urban poor when doing their weekly grocery shop. Participants buy two of each item they would normally gather and donate one to the storehouse, from where it is distributed weekly to those who struggle to make ends meet. Since its inception, several other churches have got on board and send grocery items to be distributed through the Vineyard.
The school is situated just off the Malone Road, which is one of the most affluent areas in Belfast. It is very close to the track named in honour of Dame Mary Peters, who represented Northern Ireland in the Commonwealth Games between 1958 and 1974. Although she was born in England, she has been a resident of Northern Ireland since the age of eleven. During her career she bagged at least three gold medals for pentathlon.
Strictly speaking the service was not "led" at all – it kind of just happened. There were several people who stood up at various points, however, including at least three different pastors. "Andy" – who may have been Andrew Smith, senior pastor – gave the welcome. The main speaker today was named Alan – he may have been Alan Carson, associate pastor.
What was the name of the service?I don't think it has a name but it was the second of two services.
How full was the building?
There were a lot of empty seats but I would guess at least 100 people were present.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
At the door, I was handed a welcome sheet listing some announcements and containing an envelope for giving and a separate form for me to fill in if I wanted to be contacted about further involvement in the church.
Was your pew comfortable?
The seats were solid construction square-section extruded metal frames with robust blue cushions, the kind that are designed to be linked together but, mercifully, weren't. Mystery Worshipping requires some elbow room for taking notes!
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
As I walked through the door I passed through a wall of sound. The band was already in full swing and there were clusters of people spread all over trying to make themselves heard. Slightly chaotic.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The opening words came after 25 full minutes of music: "Nice to see you. I'm Andy, one of the pastors here."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
What musical instruments were played?
Electronic keyboard, three guitars, and a drum kit.
Did anything distract you?
Many. A short while after the service was underway, I detected a smell that I couldn't identify but which I was sure was some kind of burning – some kind of chemical, I thought. A little while later Andy asked the congregation if they could smell the BBQ. Oops! A girl in front of me who raised her hand during worship had painted her nails black but really didn't do a very good job; the paint was very patchy and it was impossible not to notice! There was a guy to the right of me who, from the side, looked exactly like Shaggy from the Scooby-Doo cartoon. He had a big mop of reddish hair and a scruffy beard.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was intense but strangely disembodied. The band were playing well before the service began and continued for 25 minutes after the start time. They did not communicate with the floor even once during the whole time. It seemed as if engaging with them was entirely optional. Many people, however, certainly did engage. The entire repertoire consisted of fairly ecstatic choruses, the music gradually getting louder and louder. During the service there was a five-minute break for people to greet one another and get coffee and doughnuts.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – Alan, the quite young preacher, took the scenic route and used many more words than were necessary. He spoke and read very quickly and should think about slowing down a little. He had a certain sheepishness about him, projecting a casual, almost-too-cool demeanour, which might not always convince others of a sense of conviction (although I was convinced).
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Alan's text was John 4:1-42 (Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob's Well). Today was part two of a series titled "The Welcome of Jesus." Jesus meets those who are outcasts and not valued by society and encourages them to "do relationship" with him. Jesus does not see them as they appear to be, but rather according to their potential. We too should behave toward others in the same manner, not judging but simply accepting, seeing others as God sees them. The challenge is to live a "life of radical welcome," "leaving our junk at the feet of Jesus," accepting his acceptance of us and then going and doing likewise.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
It never occurred to me before that eating a doughnut might count as worship, but since it was a bona fide part of the service today my outlook has been transformed. The moment I bit into one of the freshest, fluffiest, jammiest doughnuts I've encountered for a long time was definitely the high water mark for me today.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Actually, I can't say that any part of the service plumbed those kind of stygian depths, but I suppose I was mildly irked by the recital of that song "The Heart of Worship." It's all about being sorry for insincerity in worship and making a promise to get back to the good stuff. But it was written, like, ten years ago. How can churches still be apologising and still not actually have gone back to the heart of worship already?
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
This is possibly the friendliest church I have been to since I first donned the mask. Several people stopped to chat to me, including at least one of the pastors and a few other parishioners. They all seemed to be genuinely interested in chatting. Conversation just happened like it was the most natural thing in the world.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
This is the only church I have been to where coffee is served both before and after the service, along with lovely fresh doughnuts. Today, however, was special too – after the service there was a BBQ. Big meaty burgers and hot-dogs were doled out with reckless abandon as if there were no tomorrow. The coffee was the real deal, although a wee bit too milky for my taste, and all the comestibles were top-drawer! Full marks to the catering department.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – This church is very appealing, mostly because of the people. They are very sincere and uncommonly friendly. However, the touchy-feely nature of all the music and the sermon causes me to wonder if this church might be all icing and no cake. In my experience, trying to be happy-clappy and positive all the time just doesn't fly. Like eating too much chocolate, it makes you feel sick very quickly. However, I may very well return here someday for another take (and a doughnut or two!).
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, but not because of anything that was sung or said per se. The people themselves won me over by their sincerity and enthusiasm for their community.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?