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1081: Zion Chapel, Tonbridge, Kent, England
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Zion Chapel, Tonbridge
Mystery Worshipper: Roundhead.
The church: Zion Chapel, Tonbridge, Kent, England.
Denomination: Strict Baptist (the noticeboard said "restricted communion").
The building: The facade is classical in a plain, non-conformist style and a stone on the front dates it to 1867. Inside, the worship area was almost square, with pews on three sides around a large central platform/pulpit where the pastor remained throughout.
The church: From conversations after the service, I gathered that many of the congregants were related.
The neighbourhood: The building stands in a wide residential road. A market town since 1259, Tonbridge is well-known for its culture and heritage. The magnificent 13th century Motte and Bailey Castle is still the dominant feature of the town today.
The cast: The pastor, Mr Tim Field, did everything.
What was the name of the service?
Morning Worship.

How full was the building?
There were about twenty people, mostly in the back two pews, in a building that might hold 150.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A man at the door greeted us and shook hands when we came in, and someone in the pew in front explained which books were which.

Was your pew comfortable?
It was a standard pew with a rather soggy pew-length cushion.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and reverential. Clearly worship was a serious business.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Let us worship God and seek him in prayer."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Psalms of David (metrical version); Gadsby's Hymns; The Bible (Authorized Version). There was also a tune book, and the tune numbers were announced. All the books were bound in black.

What musical instruments were played?
There was an organ, which was a bit underpowered for the size of the chapel.

Did anything distract you?
Of course, this was meant to be the opposite of distracting, but all the adults, especially the women, were very conservatively dressed. As one of us was hatless and in fishnet tights and dangly earrings, we felt rather self-conscious.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The atmosphere bordered on the dour. The psalm and hymns were played too slowly, and group participation was not encouraged at other times. No one, for example, joined in the amen at the end of the prayers.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
41 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – A more rapid delivery might have trimmed a few minutes off the total. We noticed that everyone was taking notes.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was on the story of Balaam and Balak, which is found scattered throughout several Old Testament books, notably Numbers and Deuteronomy. The preacher compared Balaam to "another prophet who rode on a donkey" and opined that Balaam should not have gone to work for Balak -- a rather simplistically negative attitude, I felt, toward a man who would not have ended up repeatedly blessing Israel had he acted as the preacher would have preferred. The humorous undertones of the story, with Balak increasingly frustrated by Balaam's antics, went completely unappreciated.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The psalm was Psalm15, which could easily be applied to all mystery worshippers: "Who doth not slander with his tongue, nor to his friend doth hurt, nor yet against his neighbour doth take up an ill report."

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The first hymn included an unforgiveable rhyme:

Thus through this world of trouble
His saints in safety go.
They count the world a bubble
All vanity below.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Several people were very friendly, our godless earrings notwithstanding, and the pastor said hello. He looked like he wanted to speak for longer but we made our excuses and left.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – It was too downbeat for me and there was very little engagement with contemporary culture (apart from a sideswipe at the government's social policy, which, like Balaam, encourages sin, apparently).

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, despite the above. These were clearly sincere and godly people. We were genuinely moved by their faithfulness to a style to which they presumably feel God calls them, despite its appearing to others to be so out of sync with the world.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days" time?
That there are still congregations in this country where a preacher can argue that "If we can believe that Satan made a serpent speak for him in the Garden of Eden, then we can believe that God made an ass speak for him."
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