Mystery Worshipper: Chris Churchcrawler
Church: Christ Church
Location: Clifton, Bristol, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 19 February 2017, 5:00pm
A beautiful building in the Early English Gothic Revival style dating from 1841. It is the work of 19th century Bristol architect Charles Dyer. The steeple, which can be seen towering above the classical houses of Clifton, was added in 1859, and the aisles in 1889. High winds caused damage to the steeple in 2015, forcing a two-week closure of the church while repairs were made. The interior is tall and has modern comfortable fittings. Christ Church has always been "low" in the evangelical/charismatic tradition, hence the small apse. However, the interior does inspire worship. Their website states that they are "planning a major refurbishment to create a more flexible, more accessible building." A replica of the church can be found in a suburb of Shanghai, China, with the interesting name of Thames Town (one of a number of Shanghai suburbs that feature Western architectural schemes).
Christ Church has a large student population and holds several very well attended services (they call them "gatherings") each Sunday and also on Wednesdays. They have a worship band who aim for a high musical standard in their worship whether or not I thought they achieved it will be discussed below. There are ministries for families, young adults, men and seniors, plus a special outreach to international visitors that includes meals, invitations to parishioners' homes, Bible study and prayer groups. They run a coffee shop that includes free wifi and a play area for children.
A very interesting location! It is in the heart of historic Clifton, an 18th century suburb near the world-famous 19th century suspension bridge and the beautiful Downs (open space) nearby. The area has some of the most expensive property in the city and is popular with students and the wealthy alike!
Chris Whitwell, youth and young adults' pastor, did the preaching. Others not named on the service sheet led the service.
What was the name of the service?"The 5," which is what they call their Sunday evening "gathering."
How full was the building?
People were still coming in up to half way through the service. There must have been 250 or more people there.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Somebody on the door handed me a newsletter. However, I was completely ignored by everybody else it was like I didn't exist! To be fair, the leader with the microphone welcomed visitors and then asked people to introduce themselves to new people.
Was your pew comfortable?
A nice wooden comfortable chair at the back.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Like the beginning of a student union gig. Certainly not reflective or reverential, with the person at the front cracking jokes and the countdown to worship shown on the overhead. While this sort of thing may appeal to some, and given that a sense of humour can enliven a worship service, there is still a time and a place. Anybody with an inquiring mind might question whether the worship here was being taken seriously or not.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening and welcome to the The 5! Let's stand."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
All on overhead or screens on the pillar.
What musical instruments were played?
There was the usual lineup of keyboards, guitars and drums. A large impressive-looking pipe organ in the north transept remained mute.
Did anything distract you?
Quite a few things. There was a couple in front of me who were showing lots of public affection for each other! Great stuff, but perhaps be aware of who might be seated behind! A large oil painting in the chancel depicting a sea with stormy waves also caught my attention. However, most noticeable was the ability of almost 200 people to make a visitor feel invisible!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was essentially charismatic in style. The lead singer from the worship group had a great voice, but sadly the songs sounded all the same, with very little melody! The assumption seemed to be that people find banal words helpful if repeated enough times. I was fed up after 30 minutes, but not so much due to the insipid style of the music as to the fact that the words weren't saying much. The gathered assembly appeared very much focused on themselves as individuals rather than on the world outside their own experience of God rather than prayer about other people or about suffering in the world. As John Wesley might have said, I wasn't sure if the "true sense of the gospel" would fit in here.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Chris Whitwell said that he felt he wasn't doing the subject justice. But far from that – his sermon was the only part of the service that I felt a genuine response to – something I could take away with me. He put his message across very well.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was about serving. People sometimes think that serving is about what the church needs i.e. the church needs a treasurer so I'll serve in that capacity. However, we all serve in different ways, both in church and in our outside lives. People sometimes feel that medical doctors, by very definition, serve the most. But cleaning toilets is as important as anything else. Support workers who are paid a pittance serve just as importantly. We may be so busy serving that we have nothing left to give when we come to church but that's OK! All serving is important.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The music and the lyrics. I'm from a different tradition, but it appeared to me that worship and amusement are quite close here. When one thinks of the great traditions of Western church music, one can't help but think there must be better songs to sing. I like a broad base of music from classical to rock, but this was sort of melody-free sameness.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I felt like the invisible man. No one made any effort to chat, so I simply left.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – I'm not from this tradition so maybe my rating is unfair. Also, it is a large church, so I guess people won't necessarily know if you are visiting. But I get the impression that only "their kind" fit in here, and for anybody else they just look the other way. It's amazing how 200 or so people can ignore an obvious visitor sitting by himself! I had traveled 20 miles to be there – it's a journey I sha'n't make again.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Well, perhaps, but an extremely lonely one! Also, the focus seemed on the self and worship no prayer for the world around us or suffering of people.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The thoughtful preaching, but also the isolation!