|968: Kendal Road Baptist, Longlevens, Gloucester, England|
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Mystery Worshipper: Sagacious.
The church: Kendal Road Baptist, Longlevens, Gloucester, England.
The building: According to the Glaswegian (I kid you not) section on the church website, the church was built in 1940 and was made "dead swanky" in 1999. It's a modern brick building with several halls and rooms attached, including a small sports hall, a prayer room, a small kitchen and a creche room complete with brightly coloured Bible story murals. Church itself is held in a sizable room which has an open library section positioned at the back (as you are sitting) of the room. There was a very unusual facade surrounding a small stage at the front of the worship space, with the appearance of a Tudor house. As far as a detailed description of this is concerned... words fail me... see the photograph! The walls in the church were also adorned with four ornately quilted banners depicting a star, a candle, a crown and entwined Alpha and Omega symbols.
The church: The church seems very youth orientated and has a lot of activities throughout the week for children and young people, and there was certainly a large group of these age groups in attendance. Indeed, when the young people were asked to leave for Sunday school, half the congregation seemed to leave the building! They do not, however, forget about other sections of the community and run various groups and events for mums, women, men and seniors. The church has a group of people who run a puppet ministry by the name of The Motley Crew. Apparently the group performs regularly in Sunday morning services, on special occasions and also carry out ministry at other venues throughout the county. Unfortunately, they were not taking part during my visit, but on the evening of my visit (on 31st October), the congregation was having a Hallelujah Party (as opposed to a Halloween Party). For the context of this report, I should also mention that the pastor at the church is also the chaplain for the local rugby team.
The neighbourhood: Gloucester easily combines an historic past with all the trappings of a modern city. I found the city to have a lively atmosphere, especially in the centre of town on Saturday night. Kendal Road Baptist is situated in the Longlevens area of the city, which I would describe as a middle-class suburb. The directions on the website were very good and I was glad I had them with me. I might never have located the church otherwise, as it was in the middle of a warren of residential streets, each street name having a connection with the Lake District. The Oxstalls campus of the University of Gloucestershire was the only building of note I saw in the vicinity.
The cast: Rev. Stephen Austin-Sparks.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
The building was full to overflowing. I counted approximately 150 seats, but noticed that stewards had to put out extra seating in the library area behind me to accommodate the crowd.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Knowing in advance that the pastor was chaplain to a local rugby team, I arrived at the church wearing the shirt of an opposing team, which made me instantly recognisable as a visitor. In spite of the fact I was wearing the colours of the "opposition" (or maybe because of it!) I was warmly greeted at the door. As I took my seat, I was further welcomed by a lady who turned out to be the pastor's wife. She introduced me to her husband and we spent quite some time chatting before the service began. I was made to feel extremely welcome, and was even the butt of a few sporting jokes and jibes from the lectern, but all in good humour! I was not the only visitor to the church that morning and I noted that although the other first time caller was not sporting any rugby colours, she got as much attention and was equally warmly welcomed.
Was your pew comfortable?
The "pews" consisted of interlocking grey/blue plastic school chairs. The ones that have a psychological connotation with public exams and school assemblies, and I must admit to a certain amount of psychosomatic fidgeting during the service.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was a lot of animated chat going on; add that to the activity of extra chairs being put out and the sound of instruments being warmed up at the front of the church and it actually became quite lively.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and a very warm welcome to you this morning, especially if you are visiting with us."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There were no books either handed out or on the seats. The words for the songs were projected onto the front wall of the church using a laptop and digital projector. The Bible reading was taken from the New International Version.
What musical instruments were played?
The worship group consisted of an acoustic guitar, electric guitar, clarinet, Clavinova (electric piano) and two singers. There was also a set of drums on the stage, but they were not being used.
Did anything distract you?
When the children and young people left to go to Sunday school there was occasional noise coming from the halls, which was a slight (but only a slight) distraction. At one point, however, the sermon was interrupted by a loud burst of excited shouting and cheering, again from the halls, at which point the pastor quipped, "they're having much more fun out there than we are!"
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was modern/contempory with most of the songs sung from Kingsway/Thankyou or Mercy/Vineyard music. I'd describe it as happy and a wee bit clappy.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 The pastor's tone was informal and genuine, as if he was speaking to a group of old friends. The serious points of his sermon were interspersed with occasional quips and the pre-mentioned good-natured jibes, making him refreshingly easy to listen to and follow. He also used two PowerPoint slides to better illustrate aspects of his talk. I was amused to hear him casually mention in the main flow of his sermon about going for a beer after a rugby match, because that is something which I would never, ever hear said from a pulpit at home. It would be a case of "Shock horror, call the church to prayer!"
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was based on Luke 14 and was about discipleship, outlining the difference between people who came to Jesus, and people who followed him. Jesus calls us to be disciples and that means reorientating our lives towards Christ, day by day and week by week. It means not letting other commitments constrain us from following him and being prepared to bear the unknown cost associated with being a disciple. As a disciple, our lives are not our own, and the underlying question throughout the sermon was, "Are you willing to give up everything for him?"
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
As part of the worship session there was a time of open prayer, where anyone in the congregation could pray as they felt led. I cringed and hunched in my seat waiting for the embarrassing silences. How wrong I was. Member after member prayed aloud for issues: the war in Iraq, Halloween, the US presidential election, church members who were ill, Band Aid's new single. It all added a realistic edge to the worship time.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The PowerPoint presentation for the first song didn't work. Initially I thought, "Goodness, they don't use any books and I'm supposed to know all the words." Then, as 149 heads all turned to look at the poor guy at the back of the church who was turning pink and trying to hide behind the laptop whilst banging away on the keys, I realised what had happened. He soon had it up and running, and, although the situation wasn't hell for me, I've been the PowerPoint operator in that situation, and I know it was hell for him!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Almost immediately the service was over, the pastor's wife came and invited me for coffee. This gave me further opportunity to chat with her and her husband, and to their absolute credit, they stayed with me despite various people from the congregation obviously wanting their attention for various church issues. Meanwhile, the other first-timer had been befriended by another lady in the church and was also enjoying coffee and a long chat.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was a choice of tea or coffee served in what I'd describe as a standard church cup and saucer, and juice for the young people. Alongside a selection of the usual type of biscuits, there was a sponge cake that looked like a sliced up birthday cake. In the hall where the coffee was served was a stall selling fair trade foodstuffs and crafts, but I was unable to establish if the coffee and tea served were also fair trade.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 I found a very warm, genuine welcome in this church. Every effort was made to accept me and make me feel at home very quickly. I would gladly make this church my home church, but I could never follow the pastor's rugby team!
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Meeting Dr Ian, the church's youth work co-ordinator. A man I'd say was on the wrong side of 35 but with dyed bright red hair shaved at the back into an intricate design and wearing painted DM boots. Nothing at all wrong with his appearance, don't get me wrong, but to be told he was the local GP...