They look like anyone else in a church service. They join in with the singing. They jot down brief notes during the sermon. They even sip the coffee when the service is over. But it's only later, when the collection is being counted up in the vestry that the church realizes the awful truth they have been visited by the Mystery Worshipper!
Ship of Fools now has an intrepid team of Mystery Worshippers travelling incognito in the British aisles and beyond. From Kentucky to Kettering, from Basingstoke to Bangkok, our worship representatives carry out spot-checks on church services: reporting on the comfort of the pews, the warmth of the welcome, the length of the sermon
The only clue that they have been there at all is the Mystery Worshipper calling card, dropped discreetly into the collection plate.
No. 1: Kensington Temple, London
Mystery Worshipper: Nick O'Demus.
The church: Kensington Temple (affectionately known as 'KT'), Notting Hill, West London.
Denomination: Elim Pentecostal.
The building: Medium-sized Victorian Gothic (1848), shabby interior with no natural light, because all the windows have thick curtains. Lots of TV cameras and studio-type lighting.
The neghbourhood: The church is an antique's throw from the famous Portobello Road street market.
Today's preacher: Rev. Colin Dye, Senior Pastor.
What was the name of the service?
The Sunday morning 11 o'clock service.
How full was the building?
Every single seat was taken downstairs and in the wraparound gallery, plus the overflow hall downstairs and there was also a video link to churches in Luton, Northampton, Slough, eight London locations, Oslo and Amsterdam. In other words, we are talking Megachurch.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
The nearest I got to a welcome was someone glaring at me when I almost took their 'reserved' seat.
Was your pew comfortable?
My rather ancient plastic seat with chrome legs was OKish for comfort.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
'Informal' is probably the best word. The woman in the seat next to mine was tucking into her breakfast of takeaway sandwiches while the crowds milled and the band tuned up.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
'Good morning! Would you please stand up. Are you ready to praise God?'
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Everyone seemed to have brought their own Bible (except me tut!). There were no books provided the words of hymns and songs were delivered by autocue on video screens all around the church.
What musical instruments were played?
Synth, guitar, drums.
Did anything distract you?
Yes: a middle-aged white woman, inexplicably dressed in an orange Indian sari and black trainers, who danced and jumped wildly during the singing.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
We had Pentecostal worship, complete with emotional singing, speaking in tongues, hand-clapping and jogging on the spot but disappointingly, it never rocketed into the spiritual stratosphere.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
47 mins. This included a 'come on everybody, let's pray aloud in tongues' interlude, and several interruptions for 'clap offerings' (applause to God).
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
I'd rate him 8. He spoke without notes, got the congregation involved and spoke with the rapidity of a machine gun... very tiring, though.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The long-awaited revival is about to hit Europe, if we fast and pray for it, and even the proudest atheist will bow the knee when it comes.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
When Gina, a young black woman strikingly dressed in a scarlet suit, soulfully sang the classical Pentecostal anthem, 'I Surrender All'.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
When our white preacher called on his mostly Afro-Caribbean listeners to cast off their reserve and cry aloud to God for revival, with the words: 'Don't go all British on me half of you weren't even born here!' This gaffe elicited a stifled gasp even from this uncritical congregation.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I went downstairs to the church's welcome area, but no one was welcoming me or the few other newcomers who went there. We welcomed each other!
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Hot, instant, forgettable...
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Bits of it, yes, but I was mainly worried that if God likes this sort of worship, then he has no taste!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven day's time?
Gina's red suit, probably.
Interested in joining our growing team of Mystery Worshippers? Why not click here, tell us a little about yourself, and we'll send you some details.
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