|1150: Portrush Presbyterian, Portrush, County Antrim, Northern Ireland|
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| Mystery Worshipper: Sagacious.
The church: Portrush Presbyterian, Portrush, County Antrim, Northern Ireland.
The building: The church is a gray stone building, sitting above road level, highly visible as it rises impressively in the main street of this busy seaside town. A traditional building both inside and out, it has recently undergone some interior renovation work. The airy inner foyer at the back of the church features a coffee bar. A pale marbled aspect at the front highlights the pulpit. There is also some rather impressive stained glass. Upstairs can be found a bright, light wood and perspex balcony, furnished with traditional dark wooden pews. I'll have more to say later about these as well as the downstairs seating. In completing the renovation work, this congregation has managed to maintain a nice mix of modern and traditional. There are also several sizeable meeting halls situated in a separate building behind the church.
The church: The congregation describes itself as "a worshipping community of 320 families – a community of ordinary people whose lives God is working in." It is comprised of all age groups, with a sizeable number of young people in evidence, although the many holidaymakers in attendance during summer weekends may have skewed the actual mix. They seem very much involved in outreach in the town. In fact, it was as a result of receiving an invitation to attend the church whilst walking through the town that I decided to make my visit.
The neighbourhood: Portrush is Northern Ireland's favourite local holiday destination. Situated on a natural peninsula, it enjoys fabulous views of both the North Antrim coast and Scotland on one side, and County Donegal in the South of Ireland on the other. There are two exceptionally beautiful sandy beaches, one of which is situated beside the famous Royal Portrush Golf Club, considered one of the best golf courses in the world. In contrast to the excellent views, surroundings and facilities is the town itself, which is in need of a bit of a makeover and a lick or two of paint, as it looks rather gray, dull and in places more than a little dated.
The cast: The Rev. John Kirkpatrick.
The date & time: 22 May 2005, 10.30am.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
I couldn't see much of downstairs from where I was positioned, but upstairs was approximately two-thirds full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Someone shook my hand at the main entrance. Inside, a lady was giving out pink and yellow sheets. She didn't offer me either, and when I asked did I need them she said no. It turned out that these were the announcement sheet and order of service, which included the Bible reading and all the words to the hymns, so they would have been useful!
Was your pew comfortable?
Quite the opposite, I'm afraid. More on this in a bit.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was a buzz of conversation as we waited for the service to begin, and the occasional swell of motion as people stood to let late arrivers squeeze past them into vacant spaces in the middle of the pews. Why do pews always fill up from the aisle first?
What were the exact opening words of the service?
We sang "Abba Father," after which someone announced, "The service later on this evening will not be here, but rather at Ballyrashane Presbyterian Church."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The announcements and hymns were all projected onto a screen at the front. The reading was taken from the New International Version of the Bible. There were Bibles placed in the pews, but none in the pew I had chosen to sit in.
What musical instruments were played?
There was quite a large worship group comprised mostly of young people, but from where I was sitting they were partly obscured by a pillar. I did manage to establish that there were a piano, organ, guitar, violin, flute and drums.
Did anything distract you?
I had chosen to sit in the back row of the gallery, thinking it would give me a better perspective on things. Major mistake! The seat back formed a 90 degree angle with the seat, and the distance between my pew and that in front was insufficient for anyone over the age of 10. No matter how hard I pressed my nethers into the back, my knees were still crushed by the pew in front. I couldn’t cross my legs unless I sat sideways in the pew, and when I did this the cushion (which was slightly too wide for the seat) slipped off. By the time the sermon started I was fidgeting desperately, and by the time it ended I actually had pins and needles in one leg. I wondered if one could acquire deep vein thrombosis from a church service.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was traditional, although some of the hymns were modern and there were a few action choruses included for the youngsters.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 The first thing I noticed about Rev. Kirkpatrick was that he had opted for a shirt and tie rather than the more traditional Presbyterian minister's collar. He moved from the lectern to the pulpit to deliver his sermon, and as he started his talk he took off his suit jacket and folded his arms in a relaxed manner. He was quite softspoken, but the conviction in his voice was strong and he didn't pull his punches.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The Bible reading was from Ephesians 5:14-20: "Awake, O sleeper." We often get wake-up calls, such as when students turn over their exam papers, or politicians suffer defeat at general elections, or Manchester United loses the FA Cup final! We each need to wake up to who we are and to the responsibility of being a Christian. These are desperate times, when Christians are tempted to let their values erode to the point where their lives are no different from those around them. He illustrated and reinforced his points by quoting from the books, Don't Waste Your Life (John Piper) and Ordering Your Private World (Gordon McDonald). He also read a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley – "Time Long Past" – to illustrate that to reminisce for the past is to waste the present and does not hold out any good for the future.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I discovered too late that the seats (yes, seats and not pews) downstairs were the most spacious, comfortable and luxurious I have ever seen in a church anywhere. Armrests, backrests, legroom by the bucketload. Positively first class! I'm just sorry I didn’t discover this feature of heaven earlier.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Sitting in that terribly cramped pew in the back row of the gallery.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I managed to unfold my numb, cramped legs and to hobble downstairs to the coffee area at the back of the church to have a nosy around. Several church members were quick to engage me in conversation. Obviously rightly proud of the renovation work, they took the time to explain the changes that had been made. I imagine I also got a few knowing smiles as I tested the seats downstairs, a kind of sympathetic "Ah, you were sitting in the back row of the gallery" look!
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Tea and coffee were ready and waiting as the service ended and were served up in polystyrene cups by a lady with a very friendly smile. There was also an abundance of home-baked currant squares.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 The service was a little more traditional than I am accustomed to, but I found the Rev. Kirkpatrick to be a very good communicator and I liked his no-nonsense approach.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Very much so. I felt inspired by the minister's message.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
To take a pair of flight socks next time I go, in case I don't get a seat downstairs!