Mystery Worshipper: Servetus
Church: Lisburn Baptist
Location: Lisburn, Northern Ireland
Date of visit: Sunday, 18 July 2010, 11:00am
A plain, pointy-roofed, rectangular, modern brick building that looks slightly awkward in its location on a busy downtown street surrounded by fast-food takeaways. Inside it is roomy and notable for its plain-ness: long rectangular windows and plain walls painted in three different shades of tannish brown. There is a single vase with flowers near the front to the left of the pulpit, providing some colour. On the pulpit wall there is a sentence in gold lettering: "Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father."
Their website describes some of their activities. Notable is the book trailer, which they park at various locales and which is designed (quoting from their website) "to engage passers-by in conversation relating to their position before God."
Lisburn is a city southwest of Belfast. It is home to Thiepval Barracks, the headquarters of the British Army in Northern Ireland. Lisburn is certainly the place to come if you are hungry – you can take your pick from fried chicken, pizza, kebab, Indian, Chinese, or a variety of other restaurants and sandwich shoppes all within 100 paces of each other.
The Revd John Taylor, pastor, did everything himself, apart from play the organ.
What was the name of the service?Morning Service.
How full was the building?
Probably around 250 people in total. The building slowly filled up systematically from the back, but the very front rows didn't come into use at all.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. The men on the door were very welcoming indeed and seemed pleased to see us.
Was your pew comfortable?
Wooden pews with red cushioning, which I found comfy enough, but my sidekick complained that the back was too low.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The large room bubbled with conversation right up to the opening.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"As it says in the Gospel..." The pastor then read from John 1:1.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Christian Hymns. There were no pew Bibles.
What musical instruments were played?
There was a lone electronic organ that sounded quite old-fashioned.
Did anything distract you?
A wee old lady sitting directly in front of me (bless her!) had a bobbly head. Most of the way through the service it jiggled and swayed from side to side and up an down and was particularly animated during the singing. Also, I felt quite conspicuous and under-dressed. It's so difficult for visitors to know how to dress for church these days. I have noticed some churches make a point of mentioning a dress code on their websites, something that I think is a very good idea indeed.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I found it exceptionally formal, a case of the classic hymn sandwich. It didn't help that everyone was dressed very conservatively except for your Mystery Worshipper – the room was full of hats! However, everyone present really sang out and I was quite impressed with their sincerity. There was a long prayer that one enthusiastic member of the congregation kept peppering with "Hallelujah!", "Yes!", "Amen!", "Yes, Lord!", and so on. The pastor gave a youth talk that I'll have more to say about in a moment. After the hymn sandwich came a communion service, but I left before it started, as I felt emotionally drained by then. Apparently about 20 per cent of the others felt as I did, judging from their exit.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – The pastor looked very small behind the pulpit and in front of the very large plain wall. He spoke with a country accent and I detected a slight nasal quality to his voice. I had been led to believe that Baptists are champions of exegesis and expository preaching, but there was nothing like that in evidence this morning. The sermon lacked cohesion and at times I could barely make any sense of it at all.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Good question. The reading was Genesis 28:1-22 (Isaac blesses Jacob and sends him on his way; he dreams of a stairway to heaven) and the pastor called his sermon "Jacob: the man God needed to change." But the title was totally superfluous and the text itself was merely a springboard for launching a series of evangelistic slogans, pithy sayings and sentimental platitudes along the lines of "Keep putting God first and he will see you right" and other such notions.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Perhaps just a brief glimmer during the singing of "Come thou font of every blessing."
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The youth talk. The pastor began good-naturedly enough by using a wash-bag as a prop to illustrate the need to keep oneself clean. But then he quoted Jeremiah 17:9 ("A human heart is more dishonest than anything else") and told the children that their hearts were "desperately wicked" and couldn't be cleaned except by the blood of Jesus. I was deeply troubled at the thought of telling little children how evil they were.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No time for that. As we were leaving, though, several people made a point of saying how welcome we were. I believe they meant it and would genuinely like to see us again.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There wasn't any.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 – For me this visit was like stepping back in time. The hats and suits and formal atmosphere put me off.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Glad I'm not a Baptist! I will go to another Baptist church some day but not this one.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
That this is a "hat" church!