Mystery Worshipper: Augustine
Church: Cowplain Evangelical
Location: Cowplain, Hampshire, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 28 August 2011, 10:30am
A brick built building, extended forward around 2001 to create a more open and welcoming space behind the main worship space. This is used for the coffee shop during the week and as overflow space for the church. Inside the church is well modernised and comfortable, although the wash of purple and pink over the pastor's platform from LED spotlights wasn't to my personal taste.
They seem to serve their own members well, and are open and engaged with the local community. The coffee shop is a regular feature for the local community and the older church members. Some of the congregation seem to travel some distance to come to this church. There are several other groups meeting weekly for various sections of the community: ladies, men, older folk, etc. They are linked with the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches.
Cowplain is a small village in southeast England. It seems to be a typical ribbon development along the main road from somewhere to somewhere else. I don't think any of the shops or architecture are likely to lure people to Cowplain particularly, although the residents appear to be proud of their restaurants: Thai, Indian, Italian and Chinese. The local pub, called the Spotted Cow, is said to have given the village its name. The church is about 50 metres up a side street from the main road through Cowplain, and has a car park next to it.
The Revd Phill Brown, pastor, led the whole service, but was supported by an able music group.
What was the name of the service?Discovery Service.
How full was the building?
The original church building, furnished with chairs, was mostly full. The entrance/coffee area, which can be used for overflow, wasn't needed. There were maybe 100 people there; it looks like they could accommodate 150 fairly easily.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was welcomed at the door with a handshake, a hello, and the question "Would you like one?" which I presume referred to the service sheet. Thereafter, a standard "Welcome to our visitors" from the pastor up front, then no more welcomes until being greeted during coffee.
Was your pew comfortable?
They use comfy individual metal chairs with upholstered backs and seats (and curious hinged metal book pockets that also had provision for an individual communion cup, I guess). No complaints about comfort. I survived the hour and ten minutes well.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Before the service there was recorded music and much chatting among people who knew each other. The service countdown yes, literally started five minutes before the service, with a clock pulsing on the overhead screen as it counted down to zero (rather like the BBC World News countdown). Shortly after zero, the pastor bounded up onto the stage and took his place centre-stage behind his lectern.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome. Would you please stand to worship our Lord Jesus Christ and Son of God." Then straight into the first song.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
No books. Everything was on the screen, although many people used their own Bibles for the reading. The service sheet also had an insert where we all diligently filled in the blanks as Pastor Phill spoke to us during the sermon. Despite sounding a bit trite, it actually worked well. I saw lots of people afterward putting their papers away to take home.
What musical instruments were played?
Keyboard, acoustic guitar, electric bass and drums, plus two singers miked up. The worship worked well and wasn't too loud. It seemed a bit programmed we only had one ad hoc repetition of a final line in one song (responding to the sense of worship).
Did anything distract you?
The countdown before the start of the service was distracting. I didn't really know how to respond to it. It certainly didn't help me prepare to worship, nor did it seem to help the worship team, who continued to drink mugs of tea until just before the off.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Fairly middle of the road for a church like this. A few hands were raised in some songs, but no dancing that I noticed, just some hip swinging by those with flowing skirts. The number of verses and choruses were all programmed into their worship software and stuck to throughout.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Pastor Phill was very clear in his sermon and communicated well. He was direct and accessible, asking questions like "Would you agree with me that people are weird?" (Sadly it wasn't Pentecostal enough to have a chorus of Amens to this question!). He managed to engage the youths that had chosen to stay in church, and I didn't see anyone nod off. Writing on our sheets where we had "fill in the blank" slots kept us all focused.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was session six of a series on "Counter-cultural Jesus" focusing on "How to forgive." It answered two questions: (1) What happens when I don't forgive? and (2) How can I forgive? It answered the questions with sufficient background and explanation for those who were there to "discover" at this "discovery service."
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
There was no rapture for me, but being warm and comfortable certainly stopped me complaining. The photos of nature used as background for some of the songs were encouraging, and helped me fix my eyes on things above.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Having had the countdown to the service onscreen, I was fearful that there would be other PowerPoint monstrosities. Only being allowed at maximum two lines per slide on the screen meant that the sense of shape you get from seeing verses and choruses in their entirety was lost.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing until I queued up for coffee, when I was welcomed again. Then, as I stood with my coffee, I was introduced to someone else by a third party and left to chat with them. I excused myself when I had to leave, but I would think that others would have approached me if I had been given fresh opportunity to look lonely and lost.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It tasted surprisingly good, and the plastic beaker came in a cardboard sleeve to make it easy to hold. Some biscuits were available (digestives and ginger creams), and no requests for money, thankfully. Tea and squash also available.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – People seemed genuine, friendly and focused on applying the Bible to their lives. That's attractive to me, although I did feel a bit like despite it being a discovery service for people who don't usually come to church, it was actually focused on the regulars.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It was good to be with the body of Christ, and there was a sense that a few visits would make it start to feel like family.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
That countdown to the service.