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1113: Victory Praise Centre, Ballymena, Northern Ireland
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Victory Praise Centre, Ballymena, Northern Ireland
Mystery Worshipper: Sagacious.
The church: Victory Praise Centre, Ballymena, Northern Ireland.
Denomination: Independent.
The building: Church is held in a converted warehouse in the middle of a small industrial estate on the outskirts of the town. From the outside it looks just like any other industrial unit: cold and box-like. However, stepping inside was a bit like acting out CS Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia and stepping through the wardrobe. In contrast to the rather austere exterior, the interior was quite dark but theatrically lit (if that makes sense!) with a lot of back-lighting. All seemed very plush and comfortable. A large stage dominated the front of the room, and at one side stood a series of garden type trellises behind which tables and chairs were set out. Several of those very expensive, real-looking artificial plants were positioned about the room. At the back there was a raised area from where the sound and PowerPoint were operated.
The church: Although there were a lot of young people in the congregation, it was by no means exclusively young. It seemed like a tight-knit gathering, with everyone knowing everybody else. I seemed to stand out as an obvious stranger in their midst.
The neighbourhood: Ballymena is situated on the river Braid in county Antrim. The name of the town comes from the Irish Gaelic An Baile Meadhonach, meaning "the middle townland" – although its local MP, the Rev. Ian Paisley, probably wouldn't be pointing out that particular fact! According to folklore, St Patrick worked as a herder at Slemish Mountain, five miles from Ballymena. The area is considered to be the buckle of the Northern Ireland Bible belt (perhaps due to the proclivities of its MP), but it is also said to have the worst heroin problem in Northern Ireland.
The cast: Pastor Gerry led the praise, assisted by Pastor Rosemary McAuley. A gentleman named Herb (sorry, no surname given) spoke.
What was the name of the service?
Family Worship.

How full was the building?
Most of the chairs that had been put out were in use, with about 120 people present. There was space at the back for extra chairs and I did spot a few being put out just before the service started.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A lady at the main entrance shook my hand and welcomed me, as did a lady outside the door to the auditorium. Inside that door, two gentlemen enthusiastically shook my hand and asked if I would like to sit in the front row. When I indicated that I really preferred not to, they quickly directed me to a seat at the side in a section I later discovered was reserved for those involved in leading the praise. Once I had settled in, several people made eye contact and smiled in my direction. At the end of the worship session, Pastor Willis (the music director) also took time to shake hands and say hello.

Was your pew comfortable?
The seats were the plush hotel conference variety, with padded seat and backrest.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Dim lighting and muted expectations made the atmosphere feel similar to that in a cinema before the film starts. A few children were playing with some of the young people at the back of the church, but most people were in their seats chatting with those around them. There were several people wearing t-shirts that said either "media" or "stage" on the back and they were busying themselves with setting up.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
The service started with the praise group running onstage and singing a song. When they finished, Pastor Gerry's first words were, "Praise the Lord! Good morning! Let's stand and pray."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
All words to the songs were projected onto a blank wall at the front of the church using Easy-worship or a similar program. Video clips were used as background for the words. At one point, Herb read briefly from Luke 8, using the New International Version of the Bible.

What musical instruments were played?
There was an electric keyboard, two lead guitars, acoustic guitar, drums, and percussion (possibly bongos or tom-toms). There were also seven people whose sole job was to lead the singing from the front.

Did anything distract you?
A group of teens sitting behind me whispered their way through the service. It was a big distraction, as at times I couldn't hear clearly what was being said from the front. It came as some relief when another teen sitting just down the row from them told them to shut up in no uncertain terms!

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Happy clappy and then some! This was among the most enthusiastic, energetic worship I've ever seen. The praise time began with everyone singing Happy Birthday to two of the pastors. There were bucket-loads of enthusiasm from those leading at the front, in particular Pastor Gerry. I heard lots of hallelujahs and witnessed much clapping, bouncing, and shouting of responses from those on the floor. At one stage in the proceedings two of the leaders broke into tongues, one for quite an extended period. This was then interpreted through a member of the congregation. The worship also included a presentation on the Global Day of Prayer, which was introduced by a 15 minute video.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
47 minutes (eight minutes of that was a further video presentation).

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – I found Herb quite easy to listen to. He had lots of interesting stories to tell, some of them quite poignant. It quickly became obvious that Herb was back home visiting after having been away for some time. An Ulsterman now living in the United States, his accent was at times a bit Americanised. For example, when he talked about the parable of the sower, the way he said "crop" sounded vaguely like a word meaning excrement, and that was enough to send the whisperers behind me into fits of juvenile giggles.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Part of his talk was a report of the work he had been involved in through New Harvest Ministries in southern India. He spoke of the dreadful effects of the tsunami and how, through it all, people in India were turning to the Lord and new life was springing forth. Later in his talk he read the parable of the sower, tying it in with his experiences and work in India. It was all very interesting, but having sat through the Global Day of Prayer presentation and now Herb's lengthy talk, I found my attention waning at times.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I really enjoyed the enthusiasm of the praise time, although for me (and it's a personal position, not a criticism) the jury is still out on the tongues.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Communion was a bit of a free-for-all. It was very confusing and I really did not understand what was going on. "Believers" were invited to participate but no further instructions were given. I waited to see what the others would do. Some went up to the front and passed the bread and wine to people in the rows. I assumed these people were servers and that I should remain in my seat, until I noticed that lots more people went up to the table and helped themselves. In the end, as no one offered me the elements and I wasn't sure about getting up and going to the front, I missed out on communion altogether.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was a table at the back of the room containing pamphlets and other handouts, and I hung around there briefly. However, having been present for over two hours, I felt the need to stretch my legs, get some fresh air and let my eyes readjust to daylight, so I moved on before anyone really had a chance to speak to me.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I actually would have liked a coffee and went in search of one, but the doors I thought might lead to a caffeine fix actually led to the toilets. I never found any coffee and have to assume none was available. What confused me, though, was a slide in the PowerPoint announcements that read something like: 'If someone came to your house, you'd give them a cup of tea. If people come to God's house, you should do the same thing. Join our catering team today." Maybe there had been no volunteers for the catering team!

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – I enjoyed the service, but some aspects of it were a little too charismatic for my personal tastes.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The praise time starting with the singing of Happy Birthday.
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