They meet in a warehouse in an industrial zone just outside Belfast. Outside is fairly nondescript. Inside, the main sanctuary is a very large rectangular space whose floor is overlaid by cheap red carpet. There are several large ceiling height dark green curtains taking the bad look off the exposed brickwork and steel beams and ventilation pipes. The ceiling has 56 strip lights, four of which have ceased to function. There is a very simple stage area with two large video screens.
This church was founded just over a year ago and is a breakaway from the much larger Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle, Belfast's largest congregation. According to the press, there was talk of reconciliation but I seriously doubt that it is on the cards anymore. The Whitewell stamp was everywhere evident throughout the service.
Newtownabbey is a large suburb north of Belfast that was created in 1958 from several existing villages. The area around the church is full of warehouses and car showrooms and dodgy cafes and betting shops, the kind of place you would ever go only if you absolutely had to.
George McKim, senior pastor, did all the work and was supported by a couple of other pastors later on.
What was the name of the service?The Power of the Gospel.
How full was the building?
Most of the hundreds of seats that were set out were claimed. They made a very big room look not so big after all.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
At the reception I was asked if it was my first time. When I said it was, a very friendly lady named Linda insisted on leading me through the complex into the main worship area. She told me where she planned to sit in case I needed anything later.
Was your pew comfortable?
Seats were metal frames with red cushions, non-remarkable but comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very noisy. It got increasingly noisier right up until the start. I was surprised on arriving a full half-hour early (accidentally) to find the place already heaving with bodies.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The first words were sung: "I love to be in your presence, with your people singing praises..." The first spoken words came much later and were: "Aren't you glad to be saved?"
What books did the congregation use during the service?
What musical instruments were played?
Electric piano, the pastor on guitar, and drums.
Did anything distract you?
The pastor provided the most distraction himself. He is someone of whom it may truly be said that if you tied his two hands together he wouldn't be able to speak! He possesses possibly the widest repertoire of hand gestures I have ever witnessed. I seriously doubt a single word left the man's lips that was not accompanied by some kind of gesticulation. I started to name his moves; my favourites were: The axe, when he appeared to try to chop his Bible in two with his hand; the butterfly, which looked exactly like he was swimming that stroke; and opening the curtains, in which he appeared to be opening and closing curtains repeatedly and very quickly! At one point he also hoisted his Bible aloft and started waving it around wildly, which earned him rapturous applause, but this crowd would clap for anything (see below).
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The pastor led himself playing guitar. The music was quite intense and the content highly emotional. Virtually everyone was carried along and clapped the whole way.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
38 minutes plus a 30 minute appeal.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – Apart from the wild gesticulations, Pastor McKim had the most annoying habit of constantly stopping and asking the congregation to repeat some word or other that he had just voiced. At first it wasn't too bad, but we ended up being asked even to repeat words like "but"! He also constantly asked people to say certain things to the person beside you, like tell them it's good to be saved, etc. Thankfully the man beside me wasn't playing that game!
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
His text was Matthew 9:35-10:1 (the itinerant ministry of Jesus and commissioning of the Twelve), which he simply rehashed running-commentary style with an unfortunate lack of imagination and way too much Christian insider-speak: "Jesus was active. Jesus was loving. Jesus was concerned. Jesus sent."
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I liked that the congregation clapped a lot. I mean, these guys clapped every chance they got – large, generous rounds of applause. Throughout the service we clapped enthusiastically for the guys who filled in the pot-holes in the car park; the prospect of Sunday school beginning next week; someone's birthday; the fact that the preacher had recently been invited to speak to government heads; and on and on. I think it was a bit overdone, but it is good to be so ready to celebrate and unleash some joy into the world.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The 30 mind-numbingly long minutes of appeal that followed the 38 minute sermon. During this time, I ran the emotional gamut starting out in disbelief, then became angry and frustrated, wanting to scream or blow myself up, until finally I was utterly broken and began to despair of life itself. I would have gladly fallen on my knees in the end and begged him please just to stop talking, if only I thought it would work. At least five times he promised we would sing this chorus for the last time and then go for coffee, but every time he just kept on going. Even Dante's ninth circle couldn't get much worse than this!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I didn't. I wanted to, but my patience finally wore out as the service dragged on. So I made a break for the door when I got the chance. As I left, an elderly woman placed her hand on my shoulder and told me I was going to be "one of the significant ones" – this was a reference to something the pastor had mentioned during the appeal. I thanked her and ran away into the night.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Unfortunately I didn't get that far.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – Under no circumstances will I ever darken the door of this place again!
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
At moments, undeniably yes, but it was all ruined in the end by that appeal.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
On the welcome screen there was a message describing the church as "the place where dreams are birthed." But for me it was a nightmare!