|855: Ikon, Menagerie Bar, Belfast, Northern Ireland|
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Mystery Worshipper: Sister Act
The church: Ikon, Menagerie Bar, University St, Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Denomination: Describes itself as: "Ikon – iconic apocalyptic heretical emerging failing".
The building: A decrepit old red-brick building with a slate roof and no architectural merit whatsoever, previously some sort of industrial premises. The entrance door is in the middle of the end wall, with stairs inside leading down to the bar.
The church: Situated close to the university area, but in a fairly run-down part of it. Could be a way of reaching students who never go to church, or have stopped going because they find it too stuffy.
The neighbourhood: It took me several attempts to actually find Ikon, as it doesn't even look like a bar, except that it says Menagerie Bar above the door. It certainly doesn't loom – sorry,
The cast: Jonny McEwan on the deck, Pete, Cary, Mervyn.
What was the name of the service?
Ikon service (monthly).
How full was the building?
About 30 mostly young people in their 20s.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I met a guy I knew as I came in, and we went up to the bar and bought a beer each. I asked for a low-alcohol one as I was driving, but they didn't have any. As we sat at a table before anything started to happen, the atmosphere was relaxed, friendly and non-threatening.
Was your pew comfortable?
They were individual hard seats with maroon velour covering.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Just as you would find in any slightly seedy run-down bar in a bad end of town: people chatting over their drink.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
(He taps the microphone) "... that's better. This month I want to start with the traditional church welcome: three points... can you hear me? No?... OK, not very professional. Give me 5 minutes."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
No books at all, but a laptop and video were used.
What musical instruments were played?
An electronic keyboard and large mixing deck, but no actual instruments.
Did anything distract you?
There was a large television to one side, showing a video of an American evangelist in full flow, which later switched to a slow-motion video of the people in the room, those sitting at the tables, the mixing deck and those getting up to speak. It was hard not to be distracted by it, but then it was probably meant to be part of the holistic experience.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
There was no singing. The various speakers were interspersed with modern electronic music from the keyboard, but there were some periods of silence when one could have a time of contemplation.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
It was broken up into 2-5 minute chunks, with various people taking part.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 The main speaker, Pete, spoke sincerely, using the 3-point system referred to earlier. It seemed at first somewhat over the top, but I don't want to spoil the punchline.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Pete spoke eloquently of three recent events in his life: a conversation which convinced him of the existence of God; a book he had read, saying (more or less) that the heart of Christianity is happiness and pleasure; and a sermon saying the basis of prayer is "help me, God" and "thank you, God". He finished by saying we had three things to celebrate: certainty, pleasure and self-love.
The next speaker, Mervyn, talked earnestly for about five minutes about "What Jesus means to me". Another guy read something off a laptop: "I want to teach you how to pray", which was a 30-day plan, and we were asked to talk about this to those at our tables.
Mervyn then spoke again, smoking a cigarette as he did. He was proud to be part of this religion, having freedom from sin, pain and sickness... but by this point I think everybody had realised he was acting out a part. The idea that God was just there to love you and give you peace was maybe a huge cop-out. He produced a bottle of red wine – but it lacked fizz. Then he popped the cork on a bottle of champagne and left it there.
Cary took over. She drank some champagne. What does our faith mean to us? She ate a piece of cake. We were invited to partake of cake and champagne which was laid out on a table as for communion. Mervyn said, "Don't be shy", but few people did it.
Cary summed up by talking about issues of injustice in the world, and the irony of us eating cake and drinking champagne, triumphant and celebratory. This smug, Christian feel-good factor changes to a deep angst when we think of injustice in the world.
Announcements followed, about a local event for Fairtrade week and a new Fairtrade shop opening nearby. The initial sincere approach was of course deliberately ironic, as became apparent sooner or later, depending how tuned in you were to this group.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
A girl at a table beside me was sketching some of the people around. It just seemed kind of other-worldly to me, like something I would imagine could happen in heaven. They were very good sketches.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The run-down atmosphere and dowdy furnishings. Why do I think heaven would be more like Ikea?
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A few people nodded at me as I went towards the door, but as most were staying on for another drink, there was no real endpoint to the service.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Another beer would have put me over the limit for driving, so I did without. But some of us had a bit of the cake, which was delicious!
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 I would miss the music, but not the way tradition has become so important in practically every church. This was so refreshing, and the novel approach really made me think, though I dare say they were mostly preaching to the converted. Try using it in a mainstream traditional church perhaps...
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, and really happy to see that a group of Christians could be so versatile and develop a service that would meet the needs of those not completely hooked on tradition.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The shock of the tongue-in-cheek approach.