The church building is called The Lighthouse. It used to be a bingo hall but in 2010 it was converted into a very large church building that can seat 2,000 people. It was light and airy, with a decor somewhat reminiscent of a decent, but not luxury, hotel in the early 90s. The main stage had a lovely floral arrangement on it, in various tones of yellow.
The church was founded in 1992 when just four people gathered in a flat in south London. They set up in the nearby Elephant & Castle shopping centre before coming to their current location. They have a wealth of different ministries and strongly encourage people to get involved, to find their place in the church. They also run a local food bank which, I gather, is struggling to keep up with the need for it. The church has two main services on a Sunday morning and a Yoruba-language service in the afternoon. For the very hardy, they start the week with a prayer meeting at 6.00am on Monday, though we were told that it used to be 5.00am every day of the week.
Situated on the main thoroughfares through south London, Camberwell is known for being a slightly rough area. Just two days before I visited, a park a few yards away was the scene of a non-fatal shooting. On the other side of this, it is the home of a vibrant multicultural community, where a walk down the main road (past a lot of beauty salons) will expose you some lively conversations in a variety of languages. The area also lays claim to being the birthplace of Charlie Chaplin.
The service had a number of different leaders at various times, none of whom introduced themselves. The only name I think I caught was the person who did the "sermon" (see below), who was referred to as "Mama Jo" though I may have misheard.
What was the name of the service?Thanksgiving Service
How full was the building?
It was going to be hard to fill such a large venue. There were just three people on the upper tier. The lower tier was maybe about one-third full, so I would guess about 300 people or so were present.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
There was no one on the door, so I just followed someone who had come in about ten seconds ahead of me. I found my way into the main auditorium without difficulty, and several people came up to say hello and shake my hand. Having tried to position myself near the back so that I could observe, I was approached by one of the stewards, who insisted I move forward and showed me to the third row from the front. There was another welcome to come, though (see below).
Was your pew comfortable?
We had individual red padded chairs, which were OK. The rows were unevenly spaced and I ended up in one of the tighter rows.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quite low-key, certainly in comparison to what was to come. One might have picked up a clue in the testing of the PA system. Instead of saying "One two one two" they said "Hallelujah Amen." Over in the corner, a small group of people held hands in a circle with their heads bowed, presumably praying.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Praise the Lord. Good morning, church."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
No books here. Most things were on a giant screen, which included live pictures of those leading worship and some footage of the congregation as well. Most Bible verses were taken from the English Standard Version with one from The Message.
What musical instruments were played?
Keyboard, bass guitar and drums. In spite of the relatively simple setup, they packed a punch with the PA. It got so loud I couldn't hear myself sing.
Did anything distract you?
The live video stream on the big screen kept capturing the congregation. It's a bit off-putting suddenly to see your face projected large for all to see, particularly when trying to be anonymous.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Happy clappy doesn't quite do it. This was quintessential Afro-Caribbean pentecostalism in full swing. The choruses were fairly mantra-like, even liturgical, so they were quick to pick up and then repeated quite a lot. In the first 25 minutes, we got through three songs. As the service went on, the volume picked up, which slightly drowned out the very high quality singers who were on stage. The phrase that came to my mind was the title of a collection of daily devotionals by the early 20th century Scottish Baptist and Holiness Movement evangelist Oswald Chambers: "My Utmost For His Highest." There was a lot of effort put in by the whole congregation here, who were supremely dressed and who danced in a way I could only wish to. At one point someone tapped me on the shoulder, encouraging me to dance, though I politely declined. The latter part of the service involved a lot of kneeling, though my row wasnt wide enough to allow for this.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
32 minutes, including breaks for shaking "at least 25" people's hands and a second offering (having already put the Mystery Worshipper card in the first offering).
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
2 – I had a lot of difficulty in understanding Mama Jo's accent, so I only caught some of it. This was compounded by the fact that the sermon could better be described as shouted rather than spoken, with some music in the background too. Those bits that I did catch, I rather disagreed with. References took a scattergun approach, taking in Titus 3:5 (salvation by rebirth and renewal), Genesis 1:31 (God's creation is good), Psalm 31:19 (God's goodness is abundant), Acts 4:12 (there is salvation in no other name), Psalm 86:5 (the Lord is good and forgiving). We did as a congregation read Psalm 145 together (proclaim the goodness of God).
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
This is the start of the eighth month, and "everyone knows" that eight means new beginning. We are moving into a new season when God will bless us in our business, our marriages and our finances. Salvation is free for all; if we accept it, God will enrich our lives this month.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The worship, undoubtedly. It's not the way I express my worship, but this is what I imagine a choir of angels sounds like.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I would have said the prosperity gospel, but that got eclipsed by what happened at the end of the service (see below).
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was no time for that. At the end of the service we were asked if anyone was new here, whereupon the gentleman who was standing next to me grabbed my hand and waved it in the air. So I was ushered to the front along with a few others, where we were asked to introduce ourselves. From here, we were then ushered again into a back room where a fairly large chap stood, blocking the door, ensuring we would stay there and listen. We were given more background about the church and what it does. Having been given "welcome cards," I indicated that I was not happy with filling out personal details since I was a visitor, but it was made clear to me that this answer wasn't acceptable and I was forced to fill it out, which I did so with a fake name and address. After about 20 minutes we were eventually let out and given a small "goody bag" with a few bits in it, including a book by the senior pastor, Andrew Adeleke, who wasn't around this morning (though there was a video message from him played at one point during the service). The bag also contained some very professionally produced leaflets and a DVD by the televangelist Benny Hinn.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Given the enforced welcome meeting, there was no coffee offered. I couldn't see any being served elsewhere. However, the bag we were given did contain a can of Fanta soft drink and a couple of oat biscuits, which I had for my lunch, though they tasted like buttery cardboard.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 – This is purely a personal thing, not a judgment on the church. I don't think I could agree with the theology and I am committed to another church in the local area. To reiterate, the worship was wonderful and I would recommend anyone to try this style of worship at least once.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
In spite of disagreeing with the message and the heavy-handed welcome, I left there with a smile on my face, albeit a slightly nervous one.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The dichotomy between the wonderful worship and the most unwelcoming welcome imaginable.