From the outside it is an unobtrusive brick building, with Citygate Church written on the front. But as you come in through the front door and into the auditorium, you notice something quite theatrical about the setup. The room was mostly dark, with all the lights focused on the stage at the front. On either side of the stage were some improvised Christmas trees, while there were slogans written on the left and right walls.
Citygate began with 13 people meeting in a drama studio in 1997. They are part of a network called the International Network of Churches (formerly Christian Outreach Centre), which was birthed out of a revival movement in Australia in 1974. After moving through several temporary venues, they purchased a former post office depot in 2002, converting it into the main church complex. The church has an active youth programme as well as a food bank programme. They recently bought a listed building that is used as a community hub called Venue 28 and is hired out as a wedding and corporate event venue. The purchase was not without some controversy at the time.
Beckenham is an urban town that has been swallowed by the growth of London. Evidence of settlement in the area goes back to the Stone Age, and the area was home to a Roman encampment. It remained a village until the late 18th century, when a local parliamentarian (who was also a timber merchant) built Beckenham Place Mansion. The town is now part of the London borough of Bromley, which sits some eight miles to the south east of central London. The area has been home over the years to a mixed group of luminaries, including children's book author Enid Blyton, comedian and game show host Bob Monkhouse, actress Julie Andrews, and singer David Bowie.
No one was ever introduced. The chap that led the worship part of the service was either Tim or Tom, as he was referred to by both names at different points. The sermon was given by the pastor, Julian Melfi.
What was the name of the service?Love Has a Name. This was the church's Christmas service.
How full was the building?
It was packed, with standing room only at the back. At a rough count, it must have been pushing 300 people present.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was greeted by a friendly pair of people on the door who offered me a warm handshake. One then showed me into the main auditorium and asked where I'd like to sit.
Was your pew comfortable?
We had pretty comfortable chairs, which were covered in a fetching shade of blue fabric. They were reasonably wide, which helped when the single spare seat next to me came to be briefly occupied by two people at once, though they soon decided it was a bit of a squeeze and moved elsewhere.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It seemed as though I had walked into the middle of an anarchic children's TV show. There was a couple at the front who were giving out prizes of chocolate or hoodies for people who had found bits of paper under their chair. There was such a piece of paper under my chair, but as a guest who was rather perplexed as to what was going on, I opted not to wave it in the air. On screen, behind the couple running this event, there was a countdown to the start of the service.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Christmas is, um..." This came from a video that was shown and the words were spoken by a young girl who I guess would be about four or five years old. The first words spoken on stage were taken from a reading of the Resurrection narrative from Luke's gospel.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
I wasn't given any kind of literature, though I spotted some other people with what looked like a notice sheet. All the words to the songs were projected onto a single screen at the front of the church.
What musical instruments were played?
There was a keyboard plus a varying number of guitars used at any one time. A set of drums was played from behind a perspex screen.
Did anything distract you?
At the end of the service, for some unexplained reason, they released three giant white balloons that were bounced around the church. One burst almost immediately, while the others were patted around the auditorium, often hitting bits of the AV equipment that was suspended from the ceiling. I couldn't help but notice the similarity between the balloons and the mysterious white ball that pursued actor Patrick McGoohan in the 1960s television programme The Prisoner.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was very much at the happy clappy end of the scale, coupled with slick presentation, albeit sometimes partially obscured by the outpourings of a smoke machine (I wondered if it was cheaper than a thurible). At times there was much cheering and hollering, so those leading the service had to shout into the microphone in order to try to make themselves heard. It was a bit of a losing battle, as the congregation only shouted all the louder and punched the air when they heard the name Jesus. There were a few videos that were shown, including a modern telling of the Nativity story, which, from the reaction of the congregation, I guess was made in-house and starred some members of the church, including possibly the youngest (as Jesus, of course). In addition to this, there was a dance display by the youth group waving multi-coloured glow sticks and one young boy doing some break dancing. To top it all off, there was a slam poetry performance given by one of the older members of the youth group.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
My stopwatch broke so I couldn't get an exact timing. I would estimate it was about 20 minutes long.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Pastor Julian had quite a flamboyant style about his preaching, often speaking with his hands and wandering around in front of the stand that housed his notes. The sermon didn't seem particularly Biblically based, apart from a few loose and questionable references, though he made a couple of rather good points that seemed to jump out of nowhere.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was a continuation of the theme of the day, that love has a name. It was premised around the idea that God gets bad press these days. This comes about because people who don't truly know God fill in the gaps with their imagination. Pastor Julian used his wife as an illustration, saying that many people in the church may know her, but none have to live with her like he does. So he knows what she's truly like (at this point he asked for her forgiveness) and so doesn't have any false impressions of what she's like. So it is with God. If people portray him as a strict schoolteacher, a benign grandmother or a killjoy, all these people are projecting their own ideas onto God. Their ideas don't come from knowing him. If you were to cut God in half, what you'd see in the cross-section was love. That love has a name, and that name is Jesus.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I really liked the video they did of the Nativity. It had a level of realism that showed the level of stigma that a pregnant, yet unmarried, young woman might face.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
At the end of the sermon, Pastor Julian asked people to bow their heads and close their eyes. He then wanted people to raise their hands if they were ready to embark on a relationship with Jesus. He kept thanking people for raising their hands, though I took a look around from my vantage point near the back and didn't see a single hand being raised.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We were ushered out of the main auditorium fairly quickly so that a team of helpers could rearrange the seating to make room for the 11.30 service, where they were expecting even more people. There were a number of self-service drink points dotted around the edge of the room, which was a really clever way of avoiding a single large queue. I grabbed myself a coffee and found a quiet(ish) corner to stand it. After a little while, a chap came up to me and initiated a conversation about crypto-currencies.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It came in a disposable paper cup and was a bit weak, but not unpleasant. In addition to coffee and tea, there were fruit juice and mince pies available. I didn't spot or smell any mulled wine, though it may have been rather early in the day for that.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – I like the fact that they were so nonconformist as to read a Resurrection passage during a Christmas service. The style is a bit loud and brash for my taste, but the few people that I spoke to were friendly. If I lived locally, I'd consider it, but I might explore a few other options first.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I would've been a bit embarrassed had I brought a non-Christian friend with me to showcase this as what a church is like.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The bizarre giant white balloons.