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1148: One With Grace, Wilmington, Dartford, Kent, England
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One With Grace, Wilmington, Dartford, Kent, England
Mystery Worshipper: Lavender.
The church: One With Grace, Wilmington, Dartford, Kent, England.
Denomination: Linked to the Hillsong group of churches and Abundant Life Church, Bradford.
Comment: We have received a comment on this report.
The building: A converted ambulance station on a trade park on the fringes of Dartford, the building consists of a main auditorium with raised seating, several adjoining rooms and a coffee bar. The original radio antennae for the ambulance service remain on the roof. The main doors to the auditorium reach from ground to roof and are of the steel concertina type. Inside, exposed steel girders are partly hidden by curtains and drapes and are utilised as fixtures for the numerous stage lights and loudspeakers. It was quite dark so it was difficult to see where I was putting my feet as I took my seat.
The church: Along with its linked groups, One With Grace describes itself as "God-centred, purpose-driven and people-empowering – a new breed of church." They also see themselves as the "house for which God is coming back, that is in order and fit for him to dwell in" – although they do not necessarily claim to have as yet achieved that aim. They strive to accomplish these goals by providing weekly cell groups, a performing arts group linked with other churches, an office open to the public, a monthly mid-week service, and, according to their website (but not mentioned during the service), by being fully involved in caring for the disadvantaged, the hungry, those lacking self-esteem, the unemployed, and the chronically ill.
The neighbourhood: Wilmington is a village in the borough of Dartford, county of Kent, very close to London. The writing paper known as foolscap (from the watermark of a boy wearing a dunce's hat) originated at Dartford and was produced until the 1970s when A4 paper became standard. One With Grace is located within a stone's throw of the London orbital motorway. The local housing was probably built around the 1930s. There are some green fields nearby, but the area struck me as rather dull, even depressing – I certainly felt in the doldrums by service's end! It seems the sort of place that drivers are likely to pass through quickly on their way to more beautiful parts of the country.
The cast: Everything was led by Richard and Wendy Gregg, who were assisted by a woman who acted as lead singer and two other female singers behind microphones, one of whom wore a belt with flashing red lights that proclaimed, "It's my 21st today."
What was the name of the service?
Sunday morning service.

How full was the building?
It was about one-third full – approximately 100 people. The largest single group, about 50 percent, were under 18 years of age and were female. I was by far the oldest person there.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Some of the people were friendly – they welcomed me but were not pushy, which is what I like. But they were few in number. The teenagers, naturally, did not notice me even when I had to push through them to get to my car! On arrival I was given a visitor's pack and told that it included a voucher which I could exchange for my first cup of coffee afterwards. It was helpfully suggested that I sit in the middle section, away from the harshness of the speakers.

Was your pew comfortable?
It was a standard plastic chair that got rather uncomfortable during the sermon.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I entered to very, very noisy music, recorded at a concert I suspect, as it included clapping and cheering. People were greeting each other before the service started and had to speak loudly to be heard above the din. There was a general hubbub and no opportunity to pray quietly or prepare for worship. A projector beamed "OWG – a church with a difference" onto a screen.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Well, good morning. Welcome to church this morning."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
All songs were projected onto a screen, so no books. There were no Bibles for visitors, either.

What musical instruments were played?
None. All music was pre-recorded and played very loudly through the sound system. None of the songs were familiar to me, and all were Hillsong copyright.

Did anything distract you?
There were two burly bouncer types who controlled the sound and light system and also kept a watchful eye on everyone, or so it seemed to me. There was a teenage girl wearing pink angel wings; no explanation was given. I also found the mid-Atlantic accents of the lead singers rather irritating.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Was it worship? Ouch, naughty! It was a roller-coaster of ear-splitting noise. Lots of jumping, cheering, clapping and shouting, with no time to stop and think. There was no space to commune with God, except perhaps in the words of some of the songs, although the level of sound hardly allowed for this. There were no moments of silence. None of the music was what I would call tuneful. I seriously suspect that some of these people will in the future suffer from hearing problems.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
44 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 – Richard was dressed in contemporary style and tried very hard to use contemporary youth language. At times he was a bit patronising but, on the whole, he had an interesting voice. A lot of the sermon was unintelligible to me, although the last few sentences actually made it all make sense – but why after over half an hour?

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was the fourth in a series entitled "Living in a box" and was an exhortation about ignoring our own personal needs in order to serve others. He referred to two passages from Scripture: Romans 12:3 and Philippians 2:3. Twice during the sermon the public address system suddenly came up with a very loud three line song, "I'm living in a box, a cardboard box." Two young people placed boxes on their heads and were asked to do various things to each other to demonstrate that their vision/outlook was only down toward the floor. At the end, the sermon was applauded – ugh!

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Hardly any of it. Well, perhaps these bits: A girl aged about seven acted her own mime to some of the songs; her simple movements expressed the words in a wonderful way. The prayers of petition and praise were based on cards filled in by members; these were read out and then a short prayer was said. This seemed to be quite a good way of offering prayer.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Almost all of it. Richard made several blatantly sexist remarks, saying that women should have "sweet fairy voices" and "real men should have gorilla woo woo voices". No mention was made of any needs outside of their church – Zimbabwe and the G8 summit probably don't exist as issues for this congregation. At no time did I get any sense of awe or reverence or God's majesty. This is interesting, because the word "awesome" occurred over and over again during the service and on their website – but they must mean something else by it, I guess.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Hang around? No, thank you, not to be patronised by exchanging my special visitor's gift voucher for a cup of coffee.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It was described as Starbucks, but I did not partake.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – The intense level of control was almost palpable. "We all need to..." and, "You really should..." and "We'll be doing this...." permeated the proceedings. As I am committed to a Christian faith that seeks to empower people, this is not for me.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Are you kidding? I doubt I will ever understand this style of gathering.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Not even seven weeks will be sufficient time to forget this bizarre 110 minute blast of cacophony. I am frightened by what this sort of meeting may do to the young people who appeared to be so taken up by the music.
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