The church meets in St Mary Magdalen's School, in what appeared to be the school gym, as there were various bits of climbing equipment dotted around. The school is attached to the neighbouring Catholic church and as such has an unusually high number of icons of Mary on the walls. Something you don't expect to see in an evangelical church, though I was told that some people actually quite like this.
They began life as part of Ichthus Christian Fellowship in nearby Forest Hill. However, around 2002/3003, after a dispute regarding the leadership of Ichthus, a number of churches left to become independent. Those in south east London formed a loose alliance called the Transform Network, which retained Ichthus' theological distinctives charismatic evangelical, fully supportive of women in leadership and with an Arminian soteriology but with a more congregational constitution. Through this network, the church supports overseas missionaries via iNet, which was set up to support the Ichthus overseas workers who had been sent by the churches that left Ichthus. They also support the local food bank. The church ethos, as listed on the website, is summed up the Three Rs of 1) God, 2) each other, 3) other people. When I asked about this, I was told it was the vision of a former leader of the church and that few around now had much of a clue as to what it was about.
Situated in the London borough of Lewisham, Brockley is a very green and leafy neighbourhood of south London. The name Brockley is derived from the old English word "brock," meaning badger, though I understand there are no badgers around these days. A short walk northwards will find you in nearby New Cross, which is a much more bustling inner city area replete with a high student population, mostly attending Goldsmiths College. There is a mixture of private and social housing, much of which was built after sections of the area were flattened by bombing in the Second World War. I was also informed that the local brewery formed a central focus for many in the community.
The service was led by a chap called Andy. It had been due to be led his wife, but she had an unfortunate accident the day before and was laid up with a broken foot and sprained ankle. She was only due to lead it because the pastor, Phil, was away at the time.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Family Service.
How full was the building?
I counted about 35-40 people present. I was led to understand that this was significantly fewer than most weeks, due to people going away for the bank holiday weekend. To count as full, at least 100 people would need to be present.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
As I came in through the school gates and across the playground, I was met by a couple who looked somewhat surprised to see a visitor come along. They welcome me and asked me a series of questions with a particular focus on where I'd come from, where I lived and what previous churches I'd been a part of. After I took my seat, a few other people came over to introduce themselves and ask me the same set of questions. It was more of an interrogation than a welcome.
Was your pew comfortable?
The small blue plastic chairs were more functional than comfortable, though given their diminutive size they may prove more uncomfortable for worshippers who are either taller or wider than average.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
In a word: bumbling. There was lots of activity, including a small committee trying to get the laptop linked up to the overhead projector, while others wheeled in some extra chairs on a small trolley.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Spoken somewhat hesitantly, and struggling to get people's attention, "OK. Good morning everyone. Hello. Good morning. OK."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There was no sign of any books or notice sheets anywhere. The songs were all on the overhead projector, though the pre-service setup had not been a complete success, with the right hand side of the words being cut off, leaving the congregation to guess what the ends of the lines were.
What musical instruments were played?
Two guitars: one acoustic and one bass. There was also a young chap sat on the front row joining in on a djembe.
Did anything distract you?
Most of the service was a distraction in itself, though of particular note was an unidentified banging sound that drowned out all other noise just as someone was trying to explain what was on the banner they'd drawn. It sounded like a cupboard being repeatedly slammed shut.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was certainly on the happy clappy end of the spectrum of Christian expressions of worship, though even for a lifelong evangelical it was somewhat unorthodox. It opened with some fairly middle of the road worship songs, including some Matt Redman. Then it took an unusual turn. The church was asked to split into four groups, each of about eight to ten people, for a quiz. Only there had been no questions prepared; instead, various members of the congregation (mostly the under 15s) came up with questions ad hoc. Questions included: "Which post war prime minister had the shortest term of office?" and "What is the current capital of Sri Lanka?" After the quiz was over, we stayed in our groups but were given a large sheet of paper and asked to draw what our hopes and prayers were for Jesus to be king in Brockley. Although all four groups were done independently, three featured the phrase or image "open doors" with reference to a need for hospitality.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I enjoyed talking to the people. When they weren't asking me about the precise details of where I lived, they were a very affable and down-to-earth bunch of people.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The feeling of being interrogated by more than one person over where I lived. It is not the first time I've come across it, but it is a peculiarity common to Londoners that they want to know your precise home address. Merely giving the borough or even the district is not enough for them. I find this quite intrusive and not at all welcoming.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was no time to do this. I was quickly engaged in conversation by a lovely chap called Simon, who helped me understand a bit about the ethos and history of the church.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It was quite reasonable, served in a large paper cup. There were some cakes and biscuits on offer too.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – The intrusive questioning was certainly a turn-off, though I recognise this wouldn't be long-lived. With the caveat that it clearly wasn't a normal service, it also wasn't quite my cup of tea. In terms of being a community church, it was very heavy on the community aspect, but less so on the church. I'd need to hear some of the teaching to be more sure.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I didn't leave feeling ecstatic about it, but nor did I leave feeling disheartened.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Interrogation as a substitute for welcome.