The congregation meets at the Oakwood Centre, a conferencing and arts venue. From the outside the building looks like a large brick box, with windows in. There is a sign reading "The Oakwood Centre" but no indication that this is a church. There is an extensive car park as well. Inside you first enter a foyer, with a function room off, and a drinks serving area, and through here you enter the main meeting room. This is more like a conference room than a church – in fact, there is no evidence you are in a church, except for when they flash up "Welcome to Tees Valley Community Church" on the projector screens, of which there are two, one on either side of the raised stage. The room is very minimalist, painted white, except for two end walls which are brickwork, and adorned with a selection of national flags.
They hold two services each Sunday and sponsor a variety of youth and adult groups all described on their website, as well as an Alpha course. Of special note is the Daniel Challenge, a year-long program of discipleship, training and evangelism in the local community as well as worldwide.
Eaglescliffe itself is a small town near Stockton-on-Tees, though the Oakwood Centre is situated to the north of the town in a bleak wasteland of industrial units and pylons. However, it is well located in terms of access, being a short distance from the A66. Teeside was formerly a thriving industrial area, but since the 1970s the area has lost a lot of its old industrial base and is now one of the more deprived areas of the UK.
The preacher was Martin Dunkley, who, with his wife Lynda, leads the team of elders at TVCC.
What was the name of the service?Carol Service.
How full was the building?
It was difficult to tell as it's so big, but it was over half full. There were at least 200 people in the congregation, I reckoned, and there may have been many more.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
As I approached the site, I was shown where to park my car by a succession of stewards in Santa hats. As I entered the building, I was given a service leaflet and a smile by one of many stewards.
Was your pew comfortable?
The seating consisted of blue upholstered stacking chairs. Some might quibble that the backs were a bit low, but otherwise they were very comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Noisy – there was some loud seasonal music playing when I entered and lots of people standing round chatting.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening and welcome to Tees Valley Community Church."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The service leaflet I was handed when I entered. It contained an order of service, two testimonies by church members, and advertisements for the church cafe and bookshop, plus publicity for their forthcoming Alpha course. The words for the carols were projected onto the screens, which also showed what was happening on the stage.
What musical instruments were played?
Keyboards, violin, guitars, flute, a brass section (for some of the carols) and drums. There was also a choir and some lead singers. Everyone seemed very well rehearsed.
Did anything distract you?
There were lots of small children, most of whom were restless, and a lot of whom had to be taken out as the service progressed. Also for the first half of the service someone was taking lots of photos, so I was constantly aware of his flash going off. Not to mention the mystery woman in a red jacket, who, with her badge and rather grim expression, clearly had some sort of official role as she occasionally would walk up or down the aisles, but what it was I have no idea.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was very lively. The musicians' jazzy version of "God rest ye merry gentlemen" was the best I have ever heard. In general the service followed a modern take on the lessons and carols style, with a mixture of traditional carols and modern worship songs, a dramatic interlude, two numbers by the choir and band, and a dance from the church dancing group Step Out to "All I want for Christmas is you" (yes, the song by the American pop artist Mariah Carey).
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Martin Dunkley started out in a blur of feedback, as he'd put his clip-on mike on upside down. Otherwise he was impressive – clear and concise, relating the odd personal anecdote, but always to the point.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He started with the major topical issue of the day, the global financial collapse, and said this was a year when the word "saving" has been used more than in any other year. He contrasted Prime Minister Gordon Brown's October announcement of a rescue package for the British economy with God's rescue package for the whole of humankind in the form of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. He finished by encouraging us all to make the choice to respond personally to God.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The music was absolutely wonderful.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The sore throat I developed from one too many carol services!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I waited in my seat for a few minutes after the service had finished. A woman seated in front of me turned round and greeted me, asking if I had been there before and if I'd enjoyed the service. She then told me to go and get myself a drink. I did this, as she then wandered off to talk to someone else.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There were tea and coffee, served from a hatch in the foyer and also in the function room. They were served in cups, and were very nice, though I couldn't tell if they were fairly traded or not. There were also mince pies, but I passed on those, as I've eaten way too many recently.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – Most things about TVCC really impressed me. The only thing I disliked was the size, which I think I would find a bit overwhelming on a regular basis.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The way I drove home high as a kite, with a worship CD playing at full blast. Despite the fact that it was dark, everywhere seemed light.