A converted cinema with a multi storey car park next door, located in the very heart of Northampton. The Art Deco building dates from 1936 and operated as the Savoy Cinema until 1955. It continued to operate as a multiplex cinema under the name ABC, and then Cannon, until 1995. The Jesus Army acquired the building in 2004 after plans to convert it to a nightclub fell through due to its being designated as a Grade II listed building. From the outside it still looks like a cinema, but with a large sign saying "Jesus Centre" and a large red cross. Inside, the building has been tastefully converted into a community caf, office and meeting spaces, and a worship space in the old auditorium. The Savoy decor included some rich plasterwork and grilles, and these have been preserved.
The reader is respectfully referred to their website for a description of what they are all about. I'll just mention here that they are very active on the street among the homeless and disadvantaged, and put on a number of cell groups, friendship meals and house groups. There are dozens of congregations throughout the UK, with eight locations in the Northampton area alone! They are fairly orthodox in their embrace of Christian beliefs. Interestingly, they hold celibacy in high regard along with marriage and family life. There are two services each Sunday at the Jesus Centre Abington Square location, one in the morning and another (which I attended) in the evening. Cell groups and house groups meet during the week.
Abington Square is a typical inner city area with kebab shops, a Subway "eat fresh", and an Afro-Caribbean hairdresser all in the same road. The first thing that surprised me on approaching the church was the number of people smoking outside the doors of the church, and the number of people who appeared to be homeless or down on their luck who were attending.
No names were given.
What was the name of the service?They call their evening service "Heart: New Style Church – for those just interested."
How full was the building?
The original Savoy Cinema seated 1200 in the stalls and 700 in the circle; the multiplex seated less than that in each of its three auditoriums. Jesus Church has renovated the space into upper and lower circles and a lower level. It seemed fairly full, with over 300 people present. Considering this was not their main service, this was an impressive number.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
There were a large number of persons on the door and throughout the building who carried radio mics. They were dressed in cargo trousers and red t-shirts, and sported skin head haircuts. But not a single person said hello or welcome. I was simply handed a yellow sheet titled "Heart" and settled into seat number F27.
Was your pew comfortable?
Red padded, folding chairs that were very comfortable, with a good amount of legroom excellent. So excellent, in fact, that some of their occupants appeared to be sleeping in them!
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
As I arrived, I noticed many screaming children running around, some eating sandwiches. One child who had apparently misbehaved was taken under the stairs and then smacked by a woman who I assumed was her mother. Others in the immediate area just looked away. Spanking any child is unacceptable to me personally. The lights kept going up and down, and sound checks being done.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
There were no announcements or welcome. When the service did eventually start, it went straight into the song "Your mercy taught us how to dance" by the English Christian songwriter Matt Redman.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There was a very large screen, which may have been left over from the cinema days, on which all the words were displayed for the hymns. There was a pew sheet but no order of service or hymn books.
What musical instruments were played?
One very nice Roland keyboard, one electric guitar, one acoustic guitar and a drum kit. There were two female singers who had good voices but seemed a bit hesitant. The Savoy Cinema had a three manual organ by the John Compton Organ Company of Acton, perhaps the most prolific of all British theatre organ builders (the Odeon Cinema, Leicester Square, London, still boasts its Compton organ).
Did anything distract you?
The gorgeous Art Deco appointments of the old theatre were a pleasant distraction. The main thing, however, that did distract me were two people who remained on stage but did not participate in the service. I wondered who they were and why they were on stage the whole time. (I learned later that they are there for prayer support.)
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It can best described as a night out at the Greenbelt Festival or an event put on by Soul Survivor, the group that sponsors Christian summer festivals for young people. A sandwich of music and talks and prayer.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
8 minute video presentation in lieu of a sermon.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – A fantastic video. The large screen helped and there were good acoustics and sound system.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The video was about the choice Pontius Pilate had to make between Jesus and Barabbas, and the choices we have in life. Whilst the presentation was very hard hitting, the message seemed no different from that found in most churches.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Without doubt their rendition of "When I survey the wondrous Cross", a moment that was filled with the Holy Spirit and extremely well done.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Half way through the service I needed the toilet. As I entered the toilets, I was greeted by two people who appeared to be inhaling a powdery substance up their noses. "Don't mind us," they said.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I was afraid that I was going to be left like the lost sheep I was before the service, but several people came up and were very friendly. I was invited through to coffee.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee or tea were available in styrofoam cups. It was free and there was no suggestion of paying. No biscuits or food, but considering the large numbers this is understandable.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I left feeling that this church has an impressive ability to get new people interested in religion. Everyone that I spoke to after the service commented on how as a church they are trying to rectify some apparent misconceptions people may have had of them in the past. They certainly do a lot of good work with the homeless and vulnerable. I would like to look more deeply into their beliefs and practices, more than I could gather simply from a single visit.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. There were many God filled people here who appear to be genuine Christians trying their best. I rather suspect that Jesus and his disciples appeared like this when they first started out.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Three things: Their rendition of "When I survey" pure magic; together with what those people in the toilet may have been doing; and the mother spanking her child.