Nothing special. From the outside, it just appears to be a box with a banner on the front identifying it as a church. Inside, it resembles a primary school hall, with a hard floor and a few posters on the walls. The church uses a modern sideways layout.
Their parent umbrella organisation is The Wells Trust. They also have ties to Icthus Christian Fellowship, from which they were planted; Pioneer Network, of which they are a hub church; 3DM; Transform Network; Southwark for Jesus; iNet; and the London Baptist Association. The church operates a slightly idiosyncratic model. They describe themselves as a group of missional communities, each locally based in the neighbourhoods of Camberwell, Dulwich, Kennington, Nunhead and Peckham. On most weeks, some of the communities that comprise the church are away doing their own thing, with the first Sunday of the month being a meeting for the whole lot, which Phil Stokes reckoned was about 200 people. It was explained to me that this was to meet the challenges of the 21st century, building a church that meets the needs of the modern city. The church also runs a cafe in Camberwell.
Camberwell is not the most glamourous part of London. It has a very large Afro-Caribbean community, which may be related to the large number of pentecostal churches in the area, some in very close proximity to one another. Just up the road from the church is Burgess Park, which is pleasant enough though not the most exciting of the parks to be found in south London.
The service was jointly led by Nicky Harris and Julie Stokes. The sermon was given by the senior leader, Phil Stokes.
What was the name of the service?Family Service.
How full was the building?
About three-quarters full, with a little over 50 people present. The Sunday I visited coincided with the New Wine festival, which some people had gone to, so there may have been fewer people around than might normally be expected.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Phil Stokes identified me straightaway as a newcomer. He greeted me with a handshake and a hello, and we spoke over a coffee for a few minutes before the service.
Was your pew comfortable?
No pews here. We had individual chairs that were perfectly comfortable. However, at the end of the service, they were stacked away with a little more haste than one might have been at ease with (see below).
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very friendly and informal. People stood around talking to one another, and we had to be reminded repeatedly to take our seats so that the service could start.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Right, then. Good morning, everyone."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
No books here; everything was on the screen. I couldn't spy even so much as a notice sheet or a church Bible. They never stated which version of the Bible they were using for the passages on screen (which was so faint it was virtually unreadable), though The Message was favourably referenced.
What musical instruments were played?
Acoustic guitar and bass guitar. There was a full drum kit set up but it was unused in the service. The lead guitar player had one small drum operated by a pedal at his feet, though he had some way to go before becoming a one man band.
Did anything distract you?
It was horribly hot on the day I visited. I sat in my seat sweating like the proverbial pig. Several other people were also quite warm. There was a lot of movement throughout the service as people picked up drinks from the back of the room.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was comfortably informal. The music was contemporary, in line with what you might expect for a charismatic church. For those interested in what the church leaders were wearing, Phil was in jeans and t-shirt with sandals, but no socks.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – Phil began with a fairly lengthy anecdote about John Harrison (1693–1776), inventor of the marine chronometer, a device for establishing the longitude of a ship at sea (a problem considered intractable at the time). He spoke well, though his link to the scriptural passage (Judges 6, 7 – Gideon frees Israel from the Midianite oppression) was at best tenuous.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Phil's sermon was part of a series the church is looking at called "People who played their part." Building on the analogy of latitude and longitude, he said that our identity is defined by two questions: who we are and what we are called to do.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
At the end of the sermon, Phil asked if there was anyone who thought that God had spoken to them. He made it clear that there was no pressure to respond and that if God spoke to them, they would know it. He then prayed prophetically over the few who stood up in response. This was all done with gentleness and grace, a world away from the excesses that have so many off the charismatic movement.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
At one point we were asked to "turn to the person next to you and say why God is good." This sort of thing is irritating at the best of times with people you know. But it is positively off-putting for a newcomer. I found the question in hand was somewhat harder to answer given a young friend of mine had died of cancer just the day before.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
All the chairs around me disappeared while I was speaking to someone. This made me feel a bit pressurised to stand up and let someone stack my chair away. It made me feel as though we were being hurried out. I spoke to a couple of people who had noticed that mine was a new face. After that, I just roamed around looking at some of the more arty pieces that were dotted around the room.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The coffee was before the service. I can't say it bowled me over. It was too hot and rather tasteless, though this was offset by a good selection of biscuits.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – The model of networked missional communities is an exciting prospect and seems to work for this church. But the sermon made me wonder if the theology may have been watered down.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
On the whole, yes.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The strong sense of community. It managed the balance between close-knit, welcoming and missional.