It's a modern red-brick building that is more like a church hall or a community centre than a church. Inside is a bit pokey and could do with some renovation. The room where the service was held today (not the normal room due to burst pipes) was small and cluttered! The ceiling tiles were discoloured and the paintwork was blistered and peeling badly. There was a boiler in the corner, along with some lockers and a folded-up table blocking the fire exit. Apparently the room is normally used as a youth room.
This church began in 1975 as an outreach among the Chinese community in Belfast and grew steadily enough to justify the purchase of the present building in 1998. A steady influx of Chinese students has kept the church busy. They say a large part of their mission is overcoming the perception among Chinese that Christianity is primarily a Western religion. Their most popular services are those conducted in Mandarin and Cantonese, which are well attended by those newly arrived. But the English service has grown as well and is attended by a mixture of Chinese and Westerners. They describe themselves as "officially linked" to the Chinese Overseas Christian Mission.
The church is situated just off the Lisburn Road not the nice end where all the swanky boutiques and coffee shops and restaurants are, but the slightly-run-down cosmopolitan end, full of kebab shops and off-licenses and overrun by revelers who leave their mess everywhere.
The leader gave his name simply as Walter but I believe he was the Revd Walter McConnell, pastor for English and youth ministries.
What was the name of the service?English Service.
How full was the building?
The room was not large so the 30 or so people present were enough to make it feel fairly full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A woman named Jocelyn, who may have been Jocelyn Ang, treasurer, welcomed us at the door and was incredibly friendly. After showing us to seats, she sat with us for several minutes and expressed a great deal of interest in us.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a plastic chair that needs replacing, as the back has become too flexible and is no longer able to support a modest frame such as mine.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Chaotic. There were chairs being moved around, last-minute piano practice in the corner, and plenty of noise as people constantly entered and exited the room.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome to Belfast Chinese Church." There followed apologies for a late start and for the change of normal room.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
What musical instruments were played?
Piano, electric guitar and bass guitar, all played by young people, one of whom looked like a character in an anime film.
Did anything distract you?
Yes, the experience was full of irritations, but let me mention only the dirty mark or strip of paper right in the middle of the projection frame.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
We had several praise choruses and the singing was dominated mostly by a lone congregational female voice. The minister's hands remained in his pockets for the duration of the singing, apart from a brief spell when he stood with arms crossed.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – Too many words! He had a habit of looking over his spectacle rims as he spoke, which I found annoying. Also, he spoke way too quickly for my liking. I would be surprised if all the Chinese people present could fully keep up.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was about John the Baptist and why he was such a good witness of Jesus. A witness must speak up, not remain silent; a good witness must show a relation to the witnessee; and a witness should be convincing. Many Christians today, however, try to be silent witnesses. They don't speak up or talk about Jesus because they care more about their own reputation rather than the reputation of the one for whom they claim to live.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I was surprised at how incredibly "normal" everything seemed. The service would not be out of place in any other Northern Ireland church. I found it interesting how people from completely different cultures can share so much in common.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There was a side door that was left open for the duration of my visit (possibly a storeroom) and, frustratingly, the light was left on in there. It really bugged me and I can only hope that it was an energy-saving bulb. The light was still on when I finally left the building over two hours later.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Everyone was incredibly friendly, almost too friendly, actually. We were quickly engaged in conversation and found it difficult to leave.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
A cup of tea was brought to me before I had even left my seat, which was a nice gesture. Unfortunately they didn't ask how I like it and there was far too much milk in it. I had to hide the cup as there was no way I could drink it. There were also pancakes smothered in peanut butter. I didn't try those, as I don't like peanut butter, but I noticed they were popular with the rest.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – I greatly appreciated the hospitality. It was encouraging to feel fairly at home in an international congregation. But the long sermon and the preacher's mannerisms are major barriers to a possible return.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It didn't make me sorry to be a Christian, but neither did it inspire me.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
I just hope that the storeroom light finally got switched off and the door closed over!