Impressive, modern red brick complex housing a main sanctuary with around 3000 seats and a large minor hall, restaurant, crèche and foyer. It is lavishly decorated with exotic looking plants, central water feature, and leather couches. There is also an elevator and two sets of wide staircases with polished brass handrails. The walls are replete with portraits of famous Puritans and reformers. Upstairs there are floor to ceiling murals depicting biblical scenes.
This church is basically a hub in Northern Ireland; the bus ministry ferries people faithfully from virtually every corner of the province. There are a multitude of ministries on offer, including grief support and a ministry for the disabled.
It is situated in the Shore Road area of Belfast, which is not a particularly attractive part of town. It is near the city zoo and also close to both Catholic and Protestant communities in which there has been plenty of tension in recent times.
The Revd James McConnell, pastor, was the preacher. Norman Hobson, musical director, led the 129-member choir. There were also musicians aplenty, at least eight or nine.
What was the name of the service?The Great Evangelistic Rally.
How full was the building?
There was a fair bit of room at the back but it felt quite tightly packed, around 2000 people at a guess.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
There were four people on welcome duty at the door I entered. One man made a point of shaking my hand and welcoming me. A lady who was in mid-conversation as I entered extended her hand but did not engage me.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a sprung folding chair like you get in the cinema but not nearly as comfortable. The cushioning was fine but the seat was not very wide. The armrests at each side made me feel hemmed in pretty tight.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I stayed in the foyer right until the last moment. It was a veritable hive of activity and felt a bit like a market square. There were at least three desks selling cards, newsletters, bookmarks, CDs and DVDs, amongst other things. A steady stream of people passed through continually while many others lingered and chatted avidly.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Bless the Lord. Welcome to the Metropolitan Tabernacle tonight."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Some brought their own Bibles; there were none provided and no other books were used. There was a leaflet provided at the door with an envelope for the offering.
What musical instruments were played?
Piano, electric keyboard, violin, three guitars, accordion, flute, and a drum kit. There may have been others. It seemed quite crowded on stage.
Did anything distract you?
There was some movement during the service – people wandering in and out – until the preacher knocked it firmly on the head with a mild telling-off. Also some very bad grammar on the PowerPoint, e.g. "As Jesus say's". No excuse for that whatsoever - and there were other examples too.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The style was contemporary but restrained. The choir were rather quiet at first, I thought, but all of a sudden came alive in the middle of a song and eventually reached a thunderous crescendo that hit all the right buttons. I didn't know many of the songs. At the very end of the service, there was a sea-change as the whole church sang and clapped giddily to some old hallelujah choruses, but this was too much for me. There were people fanning themselves constantly for the duration of the service (more about this in a moment).
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Pastor McConnell is undeniably a very able communicator. His message came across with unmistakable clarity. It was a highly charged and emotional appeal, complete with finger-wagging and pleading with the congregation. He seemed to have some problem with his throat, as he emitted some kind of growl or grunt from time to time. In this particular case it wasn't a bad distraction, however, due to the nature of the sermon. Throughout the sermon he paced back and forth furiously like a maniac!
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
His text was Exodus 10:21-29, the plague of darkness over Egypt. Darkness is the fate of all those who die outside of Christ. Many people live in darkness of various kinds, i.e. intellectual, spiritual, etc. What a tragedy. Get saved! Don't play with God.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I would say the point when the singing reached such a wonderful crescendo, but I didn't particularly like the song itself.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
First, the heat, the unbearable heat. I couldn't help wondering if it was deliberately cranked up to reflect the hellfire theme. No wonder people were fanning themselves. Second, I can't help but find their style of evangelism somewhat problematic. Is scaring people into becoming a Christian valid? (Because that is what it was.)
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The wee lady sitting beside me kindly wished me a safe journey home, which was very much appreciated. I sat down at a table with two guys who started chatting. They had travelled quite a distance, so I asked them why they didn't attend church in their home area. They replied that they like the preaching here.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There were paper plates pre-assembled with sandwiches and wrapped biscuits and buns. There was also a choice of juice or tea and coffee. The food was very nice but the drinks weren't particularly good.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – It is very well organized and the music is exceptionally well done, but nothing about this church suits my taste or my theology.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Neutral – I'm not their kind of Christian! It is important to affirm judgment over wickedness, but tonight's performance was unashamedly aimed for the emotions. Perhaps it may be acceptable to become a Christian through this particular route, but if this is standard fare at Whitewell (as I suspect it is), then it cannot but result in an incredibly narrow view of the Bible and the world.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The stifling heat.