|852: Bethshan Christian Community Centre, Newcastle Upon Tyne, England|
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Mystery Worshipper: Føx.
The church: Bethshan Christian Community Centre, Newcastle Upon Tyne.
Denomination: Assemblies of God.
The building: Purpose-built for the church around the 1970s, it is a low-rise, square building with dark bricks. Inside, the main auditorium is an oblong, with the stage in the centre of one side and the chairs fanned in a semi-circle around it. The décor is very plain.
The church: They recently transitioned to the G12 model of church, a new formula for church growth through cell groups.
The neighbourhood: It is just up the road from St James' Park, the football ground for Newcastle United. Situated in a socio-economically deprived inner city area, Arthur's Hill, this generally isn't the sort of area you want to be wandering around in on a dark night
The cast: A middle-aged couple led the initial prayers, a woman led the worship, and a man convened – I assumed he was the pastor. Then there was a visiting speaker who was introduced, but I didn't catch his name. The information sheet gave no indication as to who was who for this service, nor did it outline who the leadership is.
What was the name of the service?
Sunday Morning Celebration.
How full was the building?
By 20 minutes into the service, it was almost full, probably around 400 people.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
The ushers and the people who gave out the information sheets were pleasant. Once I had sat down, a lady called Ann started chatting to me. She was friendly but not intrusive, seeming genuine and honest.
Was your pew comfortable?
The seats were all blue moulded plastic chairs. I didn't notice being uncomfortable, so they did the job, I suppose, but they didn't look very nice.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Noisy, but in a friendly way.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Before you sit down, we want you to move around a bit."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Most people brought their own Bible, I would imagine in various translations. The song words were projected by overhead projector onto the wall, either side of the stage.
What musical instruments were played?
Keyboard, acoustic guitar, bass guitar, violin and – just as a reminder that you were in a Pentecostal church – a tambourine! There was also a grand piano and a set of drums, but these weren't played. The piano looked like it was just used as a book stand.
Did anything distract you?
Firstly, in my eye line to one of the screens was a large man who, by 10 minutes into the service, was clearly receiving Holy Ghost lightning strikes. I don't mind that, but I just kept noticing some jerking movements when I was reading the song words. Secondly, the bass player was chewing. Very rude. And finally, the whole experience was rather the opposite of being distracted: it was all very dreamy. The low ceiling made me feel claustrophobic, it was warm, the music was soothing... it made me think of the 1960s for some reason.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Not so much happy clappy as dreamy clappy. For some reason, they didn't have a drum player, and it had fatal results. To sing modern worship songs such as "God is great" and "Worthy is the lamb" (Hillsong Music, Australia, stuff) they needed the rhythm and it was sorely lacking. The congregation therefore kept missing the timing. Musically and dynamically, it chugged along at a leisurely pace. However, the congregation were straight into worship, many taking on the "eyes closed, head to one side at a 70-degree angle" position that always looks very spiritual. Their worship to God seemed honest, passionate and an expression of themselves. There were plenty of hands raised and they went into a time of "free worship", including many people speaking in tongues.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 He was a sharp-suited, 42 year-old Essex boy. I liked his accent, his body language was effective at engaging the congregation and conveying his message, and he delivered using a balanced mixture of scripture, theology and practical illustrations.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
"Faith to do the works of Christ." He outlined five areas in which we need to have faith to be like and to do like Jesus: love, obedience, witness, the supernatural and discipleship. The one quote I remember from it is: "Every time you compromise your character, you compromise your leadership."
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Singing "Before the throne of God above". The soothing and dreamlike quality of the music fitted the song and it was awesome to be worshipping God with this song in a crowd of 400 Christians.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Toward the end of the worship time, the pastor encouraged us to get into small groups to pray about love and then to express our love to one another by hugging or other means. He said visitors could just stay seated if they were uncomfortable with doing this, but I was quickly scooped into a small group. By this point I wasn't feeling too good and I was quite hot. An old man to my left had his arm draped around me, making me even hotter. He prayed, and then our group went quiet for a bit. Then the old man started praying again and the prayer was blatantly directed at me. It was something along the lines of: "God, we pray that those who feel uncomfortable today can relax in your presence, that all tenseness will go." This was rather embarrassing, but at the same time he was bizarrely massaging my upper arm. Gross, get off me! I thought. I'm sure it came from a good heart, but I didn't like it.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Ann, the lady who talked to me earlier, offered to introduce me to some of the youth, but I politely declined and said I wasn't feeling too good and wanted to get home. She asked if she could pray for me and I let her as she was so nice! I wanted to get some church literature but couldn't find anything in the foyer to take.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There didn't seem to be any. There was an abundant sweet shop in the foyer, but it wasn't open.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 On the plus side, this is a growing church with a vision for further growth and the congregation is a mix of ages and ethnicities. Why not a 10? Well, it's G12 and I don't think I'm into that way of doing church. And maybe I caught it on a bad day (for them and for me!), but it was just far too dreamy.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. I'm always glad to be a Christian and it's fantastic to see another church in Newcastle experiencing growth!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The low ceiling and ensuing claustrophobia.