Mystery Worshipper: Mrs Talbot
Church: John Knox Memorial Free Presbyterian
Location: Belfast, Northern Ireland
Date of visit: Sunday, 6 November 2016, 11:30am
An unassuming square brick church building, on the small side. The congregation's first building, which was purchased by Ian Paisley in 1972, was burned by the Irish Republican Army in 1986. A new site was obtained the next year, and the present building was completed in 1993, replacing a temporary structure. A school and youth complex were opened in 2003. The whole place is enclosed by a tall iron fence with gate. Inside, in the narthex, there is an information table and restrooms. In the sanctuary, a large wooden pulpit stands behind a wooden communion table. On the back wall are the words "I know that my Redeemer liveth, Job 19 v 25" in large letters. The pulpit, communion table and biblical inscription are hallmarks of all Free Presbyterian church buildings.
The Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster is a Calvinist, fundamentalist, evangelical and separatist denomination founded by Ian Paisley in 1951. They frown strongly upon ecumenical worship with other denominations they consider apostate or heretical, and historically have been especially disapproving of the Roman Catholic Church. I was not able to find out very much about this congregation's activities or ministries, but according to their website they have Sabbath school and a morning and evening worship service each Sunday, plus a children's meeting and prayer meeting/Bible study during the week. Their website also states: "We would like to extend a warm welcome and a personal invitation to you and your family, to come join us." We certainly experienced that here read on!
The church is at Northumberland Street near the intersection with Shankill Road. Shankill Road is one of West Belfast's principal routes and runs through a fiercely Loyalist working class district. Numerous bombings and shootings took place in the area during the Troubles. There are several apartment complexes nearby plus a large and flashy Baptist church on the other end of the street. The Shankill Leisure Centre, a complex of sports halls, gyms, exercise studios and swimming pools, is directly across the street.
The Revd John Woods, minister.
What was the name of the service?Lord's Day Service.
How full was the building?
With about 25 people it was about one-third full. Every man (and boy) wore suit and tie, and all the women (and girls) were in dresses and hats.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Upon getting out of the cab, we got a friendly handshake from a parishioner and then from the minister, who showed us inside. He gave us a little introductory information and left us to seat ourselves.
Was your pew comfortable?
Comfy padded pews, carpet on the floor.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Uncomfortably quiet until some young chatty folks arrived.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Please turn to Hymn No. 5."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymn book and The Holy Bible, King James Version.
What musical instruments were played?
An electronic organ.
Did anything distract you?
We were the only ones in our pew and the closest ones to the front. I had the feeling at times that people were looking at us. Plus, I felt a little sorry for the minister with such a small congregation.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Straightforward hymn singing from a words-only hymnal. One intro song, then welcome and announcements, then two more, then one at the end. The tempo was slower than we were used to.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The minister's message was well laid out and he spoke clearly and understandably, although he read the Bible passage (Hosea 1) quite slowly.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Hosea's family is a spiritual illustration of God's relationship to Israel. Moreover, it is a picture of God's love toward sinners.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The "no-frills" service was very refreshing: no elaborate worship band, no choir, no fancy banners or decorations merely solid preaching for the edification of the people. Period. The minister also, in a natural friendly way, alluded to having guests (us) and exhorted the congregation to come and greet us after the service.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The small number in attendance was a bit uncomfortable, as was the minister's overly-slow reading of the entire first chapter of Hosea.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After the service, we stood up and waited. It took less than five seconds for people to come over to us. They were all very friendly and interested. We were even offered a ride back to our lodging. The minister extended an invitation to have lunch with him and his family at their home (which we accepted).
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
After a little socialization, everyone shuffled out and locked up. No refreshments.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – At this stage in our lives (nearly Empty Nesters) we don't need, or even desire anymore, the varied programs and excitement of a larger congregation that we once did. This little church would be a option for us.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. It accomplished very easily what many churches struggle to do: it allowed us to hear the Word of God and to be encouraged in the faith.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
How everyone was dressed in their Sunday best.