A large white marquee with four discernible sections: a back entrance containing many stalls manned by mission agencies and booksellers; the central section, including a stage draped entirely in black fabric; and two sides to accommodate overflow, from which it is easier to look at the big screens rather than try to watch the action directly.
They have hosted this week-long event every summer for well over a decade now. When I heard this year was to be the final fling, I decided they must have a Mystery Worshipper to immortalise them, so to speak. Many people come from all over Ireland and from various denominations. Quite a number of families and groups camp out in the field beside the big tent for the week also.
Hillsborough is a village in County Down, very near to Belfast. It is sometimes called the birthplace of the United States, as it was the site of a disastrous meeting between Benjamin Franklin and Lord Hillsborough, secretary of state for the colonies from 1768 to 1772, from which Franklin went away convinced that separation of the American colonies from England was inevitable. Hillsborough Castle today is the official residence of Her Majesty the Queen when visiting Northern Ireland. Elim Pentecostal Church is located on a country road just outside town. There is a bed and breakfast right next door, and a fruit farm nearby, but apart from that the area is fairly remote.
Several guest speakers were scheduled for the week. On the evening I attended, the Revd Alistair Ritchie, associate pastor, opened the service in prayer; a young lady named Suzanne led the worship team; and the Revd Glyn Barrett, senior pastor of Audacious City Church, Manchester, was the principal speaker.
What was the name of the service?Evening Celebration.
How full was the building?
Almost all the seats were taken and there were people standing at the back. Probably the best part of 1,000 people present.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. The place was a hive of activity and excitement but they didn't appear to have any welcoming committee.
Was your pew comfortable?
Not really. Metal-framed seats with blue plastic moulding, which were stacked so closely together that contact with others was unavoidable. It felt fairly cramped and hot.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Restless. Lots of noise and constant movement, coming and going, sitting down and standing up.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"It's lovely to have you with us tonight. Will you please turn and greet the person beside you."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
What musical instruments were played?
Two keyboards, violin, three guitars, saxophone, tin whistle and drums. There were also six singers.
Did anything distract you?
The speaker's Bible had a Union Jack cover. Child no. 304, and later child no. 115, somehow got lost or in trouble, and the service was interrupted as their numbers flashed on the screen with a message to their parents to come immediately.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
If I only had one word to describe it, that word would be "febrile." It was like someone just flipped a switch and the whole place started buzzing. An instant and infectious energy literally swept through the tent. There were hands swaying in the air, faces screwed up in ecstasy. The boards on the floor were vibrating, and wave after wave of loud music cascaded over our heads continually.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
90 long minutes! The vast majority of the time was spent telling stories and making jokes, which after a while became a little tedious. Scientists who calculate that the average person can retain only about 20 minutes worth of information aren't just making that up, you know! Why have preachers not got the message yet? Memo to preachers: We have our whole lives to listen to you and change takes a long time, so lighten up!
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Pastor Barrett spoke at a furious, almost breathless pace throughout, and projected boundless energy and enthusiasm for his message. He told a lot of stories and was very funny. In fact, he came over more like a stand-up act than a preacher. Not that I didn't appreciate his message, but in terms of content it was light as air, like the froth on a cappuccino. It's the kind of message that makes one feel good at the time and whips up incredible passion and excitement, but will be totally forgotten within 24 hours (guaranteed).
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Enthusiasm. Our English word "enthusiasm" comes from the Greek "en theos" (in God). Enthusiasm is equal to being "in God." The word formerly carried a connotation of excessive religious zeal, of "going overboard." Enthusiasm is a discipline, not a feeling. If people are enthusiastic about God, others will notice and will want some of it too. (I remain unconvinced, however.)
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
After the initial worship section, a guy named Alex got up and sang what was really quite a corny song, but he had such a powerful voice and sang it so well that when he got to a certain part, "after three days he rose", it was utterly climactic and I was deeply inspired.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
One of the songs was "Come, now is the time to worship." I hate that song!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I left before the final song ended so didn't get to find out, but there was so much buzz I doubt anyone would have noticed me.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – I think I could go to a service like this occasionally because everyone appreciates some candy-floss now and again. But for week-to-week survival, something more substantial than junk-food is required.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
In parts I was totally on-board but not yet ready to go "overboard" with the rest of them, like one girl who jumped up and down on her seat.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The ecstatic worship session.