St Thomas, Philadelphia Campus, Sheffield, England

St Thomas, Philadelphia Campus, Sheffield, England

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Mystery Worshipper: Dinghy Sailor
Church: St Thomas
Location: Philadelphia Campus, Sheffield, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 23 April 2006, 10:30am

The building

There's a good reason why this church calls itself a campus! It occupies several old converted warehouses in the central industrial district of Sheffield; I counted at least four of them. It was rather confusing, actually. I ended up accosting some people who looked likely to be Christians – or at least looked suspiciously middle class for this part of town – to find out which building we were actually meeting in.

The church

Well, they're an official Church of England Fresh Expression of Church, if that counts! They're a mission church, founded by a large local church, St Thomas Crookes, to reach people in Sheffield's city centre. (Yes, St Tom's is the church that founded the youth-centred alternative worship service known as the Nine O'clock Service, in case you were wondering.)

The neighborhood

Sheffield is a city in the north of England once known as a steel production centre. It is home to the University of Sheffield. The church is based in Sheffield's industrial district, so there are a lot of warehouses nearby, but not very much else, though there is some housing maybe a quarter of a mile away. It makes one wonder where the congregation actually come from; further investigation revealed that they're from a fairly widespread area.

The cast

The service was led by the Rev. Steve Cockram, a Baptist minister at the church. On sermon duty we had Richard England, who I found out later was their student worker.

What was the name of the service?

Sunday Celebration

How full was the building?

I'd estimate there were maybe 300 to 400 people there. The building could have held more, but it was about 80 percent full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I was greeted at the door by a guide who handed me a "welcomer" and said that as a first time visitor I was entitled to a free book. He passed me on to someone named Paul, who explained the church's various groupings called lifeshapes, clusters, focuses, triangles, etc. I was beginning to get lost in the jargon. "You see," said Paul, "Some have a geographical focus and some have a more mission-oriented focus, like outreaches to prostitutes or the homeless or something." The book he gave me is supposed to explain all this. I actually enjoyed my conversation with Paul despite the jargon!

Was your pew comfortable?

It was a stackable plastic chair, exactly the sort you get in schools. My backside remembered those schooldays well and accommodated itself nicely to the contours of the "pew."

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

It was a busy hustle, as people chatted to their friends, browsed the bookstall, or sampled the pre-service coffee and pastries. Sadly, I hadn't been able to get any pastries, since I'd spent so long being told about lifeshapes, clusters, focuses and triangles. I did have a bit of time to chat with the person sitting next to me before the service began.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The guitars had already started playing for the first chorus when the leader said, "All right, could you be making your way to the seats, please?"

What books did the congregation use during the service?

No books were provided. Many brought their own Bibles, and the readings and songs appeared on an on-stage data projector screen. Though I didn't have a Bible with me, the reading sounded like it was from the New International Version.

What musical instruments were played?

Acoustic and electric guitars, a bass guitar, a drumkit, and lead and backing singers. The classic Christian rock lineup.

Did anything distract you?

During the music, a notice suddenly appeared: "Would the parent of 134 please come to Bright Sparks." Bright Sparks was obviously the playgroup, and the music was certainly too loud to call for them, but it seemed slightly impersonal that the children were given numbers at Sunday school!

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Philadelphia is the happiest, clappiest church I've ever been to. My ears actually had to adjust to the volume. The air was a forest of hands – they even had people waving streamers at the front! (Why is it always women that wave streamers, by the way? I've never seen a man do it, ever.)

Exactly how long was the sermon?

40 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

7 – I felt the sermon could have been shorter without losing anything. Richard England told too many anecdotes for my liking. He made some good points, though, and was lively and engaging.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

"No prize, no price" – 1 Corinthians 9. Some people are running nowhere, but just running. We've got to pay the price, to train hard, and get out of our comfort zones for Jesus. We wouldn't race if we didn't have a prize to aim for, and that's eternity with Jesus. Jesus also had to pay a price, which was death on a cross. His prize is us, every single one of us.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Being in a church where people were so obviously enthusiastic. I could see that this wasn't just a church for Sunday pew-pushing, it was a church you could plant your roots in, and you wouldn't be the only one doing so.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The preacher seemed to inject "Y'know" into every other phrase. "No, I don't know!" I wanted to scream. "Get on with it and tell me!"

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

I continued my conversation with the person sitting next to me. Eventually I wandered off to sample the coffee.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

It was bog-standard instant in a cardboard cup. I needed it too – the service had left me feeling rather tired.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

9 – The style isn't really for me. I prefer smaller churches and I'm not all that keen on 40 minute sermons. All these are minor points, though, since this was definitely a church where I could see Jesus working. I'd need to read the jargon-busting book first!

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Most definitely.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The volume.

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