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919: The Belfast Citadel, Belfast, Northern Ireland
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The Belfast Citadel, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Mystery Worshipper: Sagacious.
The church: The Belfast Citadel, Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Denomination: Salvation Army.
The building: Situated on Belfast's busy Dublin Road, the Belfast Citadel hall has been a landmark in the city since 1897. In the year 2000, major renovation work on the original building was started and the Belfast Citadel Corps held the first meeting in their new building in December 2001. The new worship and community facility is built with comfort and accessibility in mind. From the outside, the glass fronted building looks quite striking. There is quite a long corridor from the entrance on the street to the entrance into the room where worship takes place; some potential for slipping in, getting cold feet and ducking out again. Just inside the door is a prayer board, complete with pens and request cards, to allow passers-by to nip in and leave a prayer request. The corridor also has an area with some comfy sofas. Inside, the worship room looks and feels modern but homely, and has a warm and welcoming atmosphere.
The church: I am unsure how many members there would be, certainly the number in the congregation was small at my visit, and there were not that many young people present. However, what the congregation lacks in numbers they more than make up for in enthusiasm. In their welcome pack they describe themselves as "a friendly group of ordinary people". They might be ordinary people, but the work they do is far from ordinary. This group organises and runs different activities on each day of the week, from parent and toddler groups to luncheon clubs, and I have, on occasion, met them pounding Belfast's busy streets late on a Friday or Saturday night.
The neighbourhood: Belfast's Golden Mile stretches from Queen's University to the city centre, and hosts about 80 per cent of the city's most happening night spots, including Internet cafes, bars, clubs, restaurants, cinemas and theatres. In existence throughout the troubles, the Golden Mile was literally the brightest spot in the city. Now, in peacetime, it's flourishing. Nowhere is the optimism engendered by the peace process more obvious than in Belfast at night. Most evenings, the bars, clubs and restaurants in the Golden Mile area are crammed to overflowing. The Belfast Citadel is located within this area, sandwiched between a multi-screen cinema complex and a Pizza Hut, and across the road from a nightclub.
The cast: As the majors associated with the citadel were on holiday, Major Alan Watters and his wife, Major Linda Watters, led the service.
What was the name of the service?
Gospel meeting.

How full was the building?
There were approximately 35 in the congregation and a further 15 in the band. With the band taking up one side of the room, the building was approximately two-thirds full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was "spotted" from the worship room almost immediately I stepped inside the building and was approached by one of the majors, who welcomed me warmly. Once inside, I ventured to an area of the room where no one else was sitting. I had hardly landed on my selected seat before one of the ladies in uniform came over to me, nicely insisting I couldn't possibly sit on my own, and pointing out that where I had chosen to sit were the seats reserved for the songsters. She brought me over to sit between her and her friend. The pair of them took me under their proverbial wing, chatting and promising to "keep me right" throughout the service.

Was your pew comfortable?
We sat in interlocking conference type chairs with padded seats and a padded back. Comfortable enough and a perfect colour match for the plush carpet.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was quiet, with no music being played, but there was a buzz of conversation in the room. Most of the congregation was in Salvation Army uniform, and the "uniforms" left for a quick prayer meeting immediately before the service began.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome to the house of the Lord tonight."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
I was handed a Songbook of the Salvation Army on the way into the church. There were also some hymns projected onto a screen at the front of the room using PowerPoint and a lot of very sophisticated IT equipment. The Bible reading was taken from the New International Version.

What musical instruments were played?
There wasn't a tambourine to be seen! So what was there? I'll start with the easy one: there was an electric organ. And a silver band. To name all the instruments in the band would be a challenge beyond my musical abilities, but there were 15 people in the band and I spotted trumpets, trombones, and euphoniums.

Did anything distract you?
From where I was sitting, I could see along the corridor to the street outside. As this was an evening service, I was able to watch the lights coming on as the city started to wake up for the night. The streets were getting busy, with lots of people walking by the front of the building on their way to the nearby bars, restaurants, cinemas and clubs, and as I watched, I did keep finding myself being distracted by the thought, "shouldn't we be out there doing something?" But then, to be fair, this congregation does already do that practically 24/7, so I felt mean for even thinking it.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was traditional, in that most of what was sung were traditional, much-loved and well known hymns. However there is nothing traditional about singing these with the accompaniment of a silver band. There was quite a bit of rhythmic hand-clapping going on, too.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
The two majors shared the speaking. Major Alan Watters spoke for 13 minutes, and Major Linda Watters spoke for 12 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The gentleman spoke without notes and moved quite quickly through the main points of what he wanted to say (he covered Ephesians, all six chapters, in just eight minutes!) by delivering a series of bullet points. What he said was interesting, but left me feeling the need to further investigate the issues when I got home. The lady on the other hand seemed to read what she was saying, but she developed her points more and I found her easier to follow.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was about God's protection of his people, and was based on Ephesians 6:11, where we are told to put on the armour of God to stand against the Devil's schemes. We were told that the Devil doesn't follow the rules of the Geneva Convention, but he who is in us is stronger than our enemy. God leaves no part of us exposed in the battle if we wear his full spiritual armour, but no one is safe unless they know how to put it on. At the end of the sermon we were encouraged to wear the armour and take the church into the world, and examples were cited as to how the Salvation Army working in Ireland was doing just that. Amazing stuff going on right under my nose, and I knew precious little about it.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The music was fabulous. When the band struck up for the first hymn I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. They also played a fantastic musical arrangement of the chorus, "I Love You Lord", and when they finished I wanted to clap. I had the same urge when the songsters sang their anthem in four-part harmony.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Being told how good I'd look in their uniform. You've got to know me to fully appreciate just how scary I found that thought!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I didn't need to look lost, as my two new friends chatted away to me and introduced me to more friends. They invited me back to visit again, either on a Sunday or to any of their other events during the week.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none, but I was invited to the luncheon club any time I was passing.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – I really enjoyed my visit to the citadel. Although this church is small with an ageing congregation, the Army is big, so it offers plenty of scope. I am used to a very different style of church and worship, but, certainly in terms of the music, this made for a very enjoyable, self-indulgent change.

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

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Having my stereotypical ideas of the "Sally Ann" blown out the window.
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