Mystery Worshipper: Ken T Poste
Church: Oasis Waterloo
Location: Waterloo, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 26 July 2015, 11:00am
It is a multi-purpose centre with a school on one side and the church on the other. There's a big steeple on the outside, which is about the only traditional sign that a church meets here. At the time of my visit, there was a lot of scaffolding around, hiding part of the outside of the building. Inside, the auditorium consisted of banked rows of seating, somewhat like a cinema or lecture theatre. This sat on what appeared to be a temporary stand erected on a plain wooden floor. At either side of the auditorium was a pair of statues depicting angelic beings with wings lifted high above their heads. These, and the wall at the front, were illuminated by a purple light.
They consider themselves the heart of what they refer to as a "hub," which is a branding exercise to make sure that major community amenities are associated with Oasis, in order to create footfall. At the moment, there is an academy school attached to the church, as well as a city farm. Future plans include a cafe and a gym, and they are also in talks to take over the running of a library. The church came to some attention last year when, as part of the wider Oasis Trust, it was kicked out of membership of the Evangelical Alliance after failing to meet the EA's demand that it distance itself from certain views of the senior leader concerning same sex relationships.
The church is sat on a busy junction near to Waterloo Station, just south of the Thames. Within a few minutes walk from here you can reach the Imperial War Museum, Westminster Bridge, or for those more interested in ecclesiastical matters, St George's Cathedral (Roman Catholic, Archdiocese of Southwark) or Lambeth Palace. This is about as inner city as a church can get, with a real mixture of the rich and poor just yards from one another.
The service was led by Dan Chalke. The sermon was given by the senior church leader, Steve Chalke, father of Dan Chalke.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Service
How full was the building?
Approximately two-thirds full, with around 150-170 people present. I was told it was slightly less than average given that it was pouring with rain and some people were away on their summer holidays. About half the congregation were late, though, with people still coming in 20 minutes after the service had started.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was met on the door and handed a notice leaflet as I came in. A few people came over to introduce themselves after I had sat down.
Was your pew comfortable?
Almost too comfortable. We had cinema-style flip-up seats that were very well cushioned and naturally lent themselves to a slouching position. I was sat next to some broken seats, but I didn't realise how broken until the end of the service when part of the row collapsed and was inches from falling on my foot!
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Fairly muted. Arriving 10 minutes early, I discovered an almost empty church, with only a handful of people around. Some music was being piped through the speakers, at a level just about low enough so that you could hear one another talk. Pockets of people engaged in conversation and some of the leaders were finalising their plans for the service.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Hello and welcome to Oasis Waterloo on this very wet Sunday morning."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There wasn't a book in sight. All songs were projected onto a screen, as were the Bible readings, which came from the New International Version.
What musical instruments were played?
A semi-acoustic guitar, a bass guitar and a congo drum.
Did anything distract you?
I was a bit put off by one woman on the front row who spent a large amount of time turned away from the front, instead looking back at the congregation and scowling at us. Senior church leader Steve Chalke was also sporting a pair of the most garish trainers I've ever seen. There were biscuits on tables where, if this were a conservative church, an altar may have been, and they were covered by a cloth. I had mistakenly thought they were for communion. It wasn't until the end of the service I realised they were just after-service biscuits!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Fairly happy clappy. The sung worship included some songs from Hillsong as well as the Christian songwriter and worship leader Brenton Brown. The prayers were done in a non-traditionally honest way, where we were invited to pray silently, except that pre-recorded "inner monologue" was played over the audio system (those who have seen the BBC comedy Rev will be familiar with the concept). In it, Dan expressed his doubts in prayer, his worries, and getting sidetracked. For those who prefer ceremony, procession and liturgy, this would have been an anathema.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
18 minutes (main sermon) plus 24 minutes (question and answer session).
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Steve Chalke is a very practised and charismatic preacher, if slightly flamboyant in his body language. I think some people could find his style off-putting. He also managed to go off at a tangent very easily. When Steve got distracted, one member of the congregation called Steve out on having failed to answer a question, at which point he confessed he'd forgotten what the question was.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Spiritual disciplines. Steve drew on monastic traditions to develop the idea of spiritual disciplines that were: (1) tailor made, (2) achievable, (3) practical and (4) flexible. After the main sermon there was a question and answer session. The congregation were asked to write their questions on bits of paper and hand them to an usher. The questions were vetted and paraphrased by Dan Chalke before Steve answered them.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The church had to say good-bye to one of their couples who were moving to the West Country. There was a touching tribute to the blessings they'd brought to the congregation over the last six years, and prayers that they'd find a church as welcoming and affirming of their marriage.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Two instances of things falling down. One was the chairs collapsing, as mentioned earlier. At another point in the service, a microphone stand toppled whilst the microphone it was holding was still turned on. The sound that that made, falling on the wooden floor, amplified through the speakers, was rather jarring.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A few people came up to say hello and engage me in conversation, asking what I thought of the service, how I came to be there, and what sort of church I had come from.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
About the best I've had after church. It was a proper filter coffee, well done. It was served in a paper cup. A variety of teas were also on offer. The biscuits included the king of them all: the custard creams.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – It was a great example of liberal evangelicalism.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. It was a timely reminder that Christianity is, at its heart, unfussy, pragmatic and compassionate.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Steve Chalke's Technicoloured dream trainers.