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1089: Leytonstone United Free Church, London, England
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Leytonstone United Free Church, London, England
Mystery Worshipper: Mark Wuntoo.
The church: Leytonstone United Free Church, London, England.
Denomination: United Reformed and Baptist.
The building: Built at the beginning of the 1990s on a former Baptist church site, this attractive suite of worship area, halls and rooms serves a diverse congregation. It is brick-built, triangular in shape, with exposed wooden beams, stained glass windows and other clear windows that allow worshippers to observe the passing pedestrians and traffic. On the walls of the sanctuary are three large, home-made banners celebrating the recent harvest service, the forthcoming 25th anniversary of the joint church and one which proclaimed "All one in Christ". I noticed that the public address speakers were cleverly hidden in the wooden rafters.
The church: The church is mixed ethnically, in age and in gender. They appear to be towards the evangelical end of the theological spectrum. The church is involved in a wide variety of issues from Fair Trade to Soul in the City; from welcoming homeless people who sleep on their premises once each week to supplying cows to East Africa and surplus tools to other parts of the world; from jumble sales to promoting a local credit union. Their premises are used by many groups for political meetings, dance and drama, teaching English as a second language, children's activities and other groups aimed at meeting local needs. The church has a policy of endeavouring to have church members acting as caretakers whenever other groups use the premises: this is seen as part of their Christian witness. However, there appear to be few meetings on the premises specifically for church members. This seems to me to be a little short in a church which otherwise has plenty of life. Each week the church welcomes to worship a number of local people who have special needs.
The neighbourhood: The church is surrounded by old, fairly large terraced houses, perhaps in multi-occupation. An attempt was made some years ago to hold a regular coffee morning, but it was not successful because there is not sufficient passing pedestrian traffic. A bus route passes the door.
The cast: Rev. Alison Mackay, minister, preached and conducted the presentation of the baby. Her husband, Rev. David Mackay, who is a chaplain at a nearby hospital, conducted other parts of the worship.
What was the name of the service?
Morning Worship.

How full was the building?
I estimate that about 70 people were present, filling about three-quarters of the worship space.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, several people, particularly Gordon who was the designated door welcomer. Together with the minister herself and those who gave me a choice of having a hymn book or using the screen, everyone was very friendly and welcoming. The minister's daughter sat herself down next to me, talked, and answered all my questions. She was very friendly and I wondered whether she was checking me out; as I was checking out the church, I have no complaints.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, it was a comfortable chair.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There were two spaces where people gathered. One was a large area immediately outside the worship space, where Traidcraft was sold and the tea and coffee was served after worship. This area allowed people to gather, greet and chat together. The second was the worship area itself, which was kept as a space in which people could prepare quietly for worship. The arrangement worked extremely well.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Praise the Lord! Welcome!"

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymn books were offered, but I do not know which ones, as I chose to read the screen.

What musical instruments were played?
An elderly woman played an electronic keyboard, sometimes as an organ and at other times as a piano. She played well; perhaps her organ style could be improved but it was perfectly adequate. A younger woman played a flute and included some pleasant harmonies.

Did anything distract you?
There were a few occasions when there was a loud "bing-bong" as the front door opened for a late-comer – I reflected that it was good that most people were there on time. I'm sure that some people might find it a distraction to see passing pedestrians through the windows behind the preacher, but I found it helpful as a reminder that the church must be in connection with the community.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was a hymn sandwich, but a little more laid back than most I have attended.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
16 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Alison read her sermon and came across as just a little hesitant. I suppose she may still be a bit nervous as she has only just completed her first year in ministry. I felt that if she could launch out by using, say, full notes, she would probably come across as more positive and "interesting". But I don't wish to appear over-critical.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Alison spoke from 1 Timothy 6:6-16. She began with a story from a previous church she attended which was asked to accommodate a prayer meeting held by a Christian group which advocated prosperity teaching: the church turned the request down after a lot of thought and prayer. Perhaps Paul was addressing this issue in his advice to Timothy. We should be content with where we are and what we have, for this is where God is present. We should not get trapped here, however, but continue to strive after God. In fact, God accompanies us and leads us. As we support one another we can enjoy "life that really is life" – Alison's key point.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The multi-media presentation was good and the plasma screens, I believe, facilitated the good singing. The whole service hung together very well and included both the celebration of a member's 70th birthday and the presentation of a baby – "just as Jesus was presented in the temple", Alison said. The intercessions were superb: David had obviously read his morning newspaper and included many contemporary situations which needed our prayers.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
If Alison had photocopied her sermon on the church copier and given a copy to the teenager operating the multi-media, he would not have missed one of the points and Alison would not have had to prompt him to move on quickly. I never did discover the point. This small hellish moment was momentous for me at the time, but soon passed.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The worship was followed by a church business meeting, to which all were invited, but from which I absented myself and so got to the front of the queue for tea. Several people chatted and asked me if I lived locally. There was a Traidcraft stall available.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It was adequate – and probably fairly traded.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – An excellent mix of good worship and social outreach is to be welcomed. It's a pity about the lack of midweek activities for members, though. I was not happy to get held up in traffic on the way home, but maybe that doesn't happen every Sunday. So I will definitely try it again... and soon.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, it was joyful and meaningful, and greatly helped by the use of multimedia (which was not PowerPoint, I noticed).

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The plasma screens, which worked very well, even with a small print size.
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