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Metropolitan Tabernacle, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Metropolitan Tabernacle, Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Impressive, modern red brick complex housing a main sanctuary
with around 3000 seats and a large minor hall, restaurant, crèche
and foyer. It is lavishly decorated with exotic looking plants,
central water feature, and leather couches. There is also an
elevator and two sets of wide staircases with polished brass
handrails. The walls are replete with portraits of famous Puritans
and reformers. Upstairs there are floor to ceiling murals depicting
This church is basically a hub in Northern Ireland; the bus
ministry ferries people faithfully from virtually every corner
of the province. There are a multitude of ministries on offer,
including grief support and a ministry for the disabled.
It is situated in the Shore Road area of Belfast, which is a
not particularly attractive part of town. It is near the city
zoo and also close to both Catholic and Protestant communities
in which there has been plenty of tension in recent times.
The Revd James McConnell, pastor, was the preacher. Norman Hobson,
musical director, led the 129-member choir. There were also
musicians aplenty, at least eight or nine.
The date & time:
Sunday, 4 July 2010, 6.45pm.
What was the name of the service?
The Great Evangelistic Rally.
How full was the building?
There was a fair bit of room at the back but it felt quite tightly packed, around 2000 people at a guess.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
There were four people on welcome duty at the door I entered.
One man made a point of shaking my hand and welcoming me. A
lady who was in mid-conversation as I entered extended her hand
but did not engage me.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a sprung folding chair like you get in the cinema but
not nearly as comfortable. The cushioning was fine but the seat
was not very wide. The armrests at each side made me feel hemmed
in pretty tight.
How would you describe the pre-service
I stayed in the foyer right until the last moment. It was a
veritable hive of activity and felt a bit like a market square.
There were at least three desks selling cards, newsletters,
bookmarks, CDs and DVDs, amongst other things. A steady of stream
of people passed through continually while many others lingered
and chatted avidly.
What were the exact opening words of the
"Bless the Lord. Welcome to the Metropolitan Tabernacle
What books did the congregation use during the
Some brought their own Bibles; there were none provided and
no other books were used. There was a leaflet provided at the
door with an envelope for the offering.
What musical instruments were played?
Piano, electric keyboard, violin, three guitars, accordion,
flute, and a drum kit. There may have been others. It seemed
quite crowded on stage.
Did anything distract you?
There was some movement during the service – people wandering
in and out – until the preacher knocked it firmly on the head
with a mild telling-off. Also some very bad grammar on the PowerPoint,
e.g. "As Jesus say's". No excuse for that whatsoever
and there were other examples too.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip,
happy clappy, or what?
The style was contemporary but restrained. The choir were rather
quiet at first, I thought, but all of a sudden came alive in
the middle of a song and eventually reached a thunderous crescendo
that hit all the right buttons. I didn't know many of the songs.
At the very end of the service, there was a sea-change as the
whole church sang and clapped giddily to some old hallelujah
choruses, but this was too much for me. There were people fanning
themselves constantly for the duration of the service (more
about this in a moment).
Exactly how long was the
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 Pastor McConnell is undeniably a very able communicator.
His message came across with unmistakable clarity. It was a
highly charged and emotional appeal, complete with finger-wagging
and pleading with the congregation. He seemed to have some problem
with his throat, as he emitted some kind of growl or grunt from
time to time. In this particular case it wasn't a bad distraction,
however, due to the nature of the sermon. Throughout the sermon
he paced back and forth furiously like a maniac!
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
His text was Exodus 10:21-29, the plague of darkness over Egypt.
Darkness is the fate of all those who die outside of Christ.
Many people live in darkness of various kinds, i.e. intellectual,
spiritual, etc. What a tragedy. Get saved! Don't play with God.
Which part of the service was like being in
I would say the point when the singing reached such a wonderful
crescendo, but I didn't particularly like the song itself.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
First, the heat, the unbearable heat. I couldn't help wondering
if it was deliberately cranked up to reflect the hellfire theme.
No wonder people were fanning themselves. Second, I can't help
but find their style of evangelism somewhat problematic. Is
scaring people into becoming a Christian valid? (Because that
is what it was.)
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The wee lady sitting beside me kindly wished me a safe journey
home, which was very much appreciated. I sat down at a table
with two guys who started chatting. They had travelled quite
a distance, so I asked them why they didn't attend church in
their home area. They replied that they like the preaching here.
How would you describe the after-service
There were paper plates pre-assembled with sandwiches and wrapped
biscuits and buns. There was also a choice of juice or tea and
coffee. The food was very nice but the drinks weren't particularly
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 It is very well organized and the music is exceptionally
well done, but nothing about this church suits my taste or my
Did the service make you
feel glad to be a Christian?
Neutral – I'm not their kind of Christian! It is important
to affirm judgment over wickedness, but tonight's performance
was unashamedly aimed for the emotions. Perhaps it may be acceptable
to become a Christian through this particular route, but if
this is standard fare at Whitewell (as I suspect it is), then
it cannot but result in an incredibly narrow view of the Bible
and the world.
What one thing will you
remember about all this in seven days' time?
The stifling heat.
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