|470: Swindon Evangelical, Swindon, England|
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Mystery Worshipper: slinbin.
The church: Swindon Evangelical, Devizes Road, Swindon (also known as the Bible Institute and Church).
Denomination: Independent, affiliated to the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches and the British Evangelical Council.
The building: Symmetrical, early 20th century red-brick facade punctured by a mock Norman doorway and two rounded lancet windows. Behind this is a deep shoebox of a room with a false ceiling and multiple rows of antique cinema seats marching toward a low pulpit. White above waist height, below that carpets and seats a splurge of green mustard.
The church: I learned from one of the members that the church was the vision of a local Bible teacher in the 1920s. It once drew large numbers of young men from various churches to weekly Bible training, earning it its "Bible Institute" name.
The neighbourhood: Situated in Swindon Old Town, where a number of decent Edwardian and Victorian buildings, once banks and coaching inns, jostle with some 60s eyesores. Older homes in streets nearby don't come cheap, but there's a whiff of desertion with the main shops having long since decamped a mile away downhill.
The cast: The service was led by Mr Martin Sweet, a lay preacher, who was giving the pastor a break for the evening.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
About one-third full with 100 people, including quite a few children. Pretty impressive, I thought, but the person I spoke to afterwards was almost apologetic.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
At the door a handshake, a "welcome" and "are you visiting?", followed by a special delivery of the hymn book to my seat after I had missed this on the way in.
Was your pew comfortable?
Mustard, but I wouldn't say comfortable. A bit on the short side so that when you sit upright, you are perching on the ridge at the back of the seat.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A quiet but friendly buzz of conversation. A female organist played some smooth chords and then was joined by a youngish guy on piano in a song by St Graham that I couldn't quite place.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"I'd like to welcome everyone here this evening into the Lord's house, whether you are here each week or here for the first time."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
New King James Bible, and Praise! (an attractively bound blue hymn book). Their own BIAC Praise wasn't used.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ and piano.
Did anything distract you?
The preacher had to vie for attention with four marvellously colourful life-size pictures of biblical stories in child's storybook style behind the pulpit. These were all there for a children's holiday Bible club the coming week. Some very antique-looking lamps on the pulpit and organ were a source of puzzlement until I worked out that they were also there to illustrate Jesus as the light of the world for the children's club. A less pleasant distraction was the lorry rumble and performance car roar of circling traffic outside.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
We sat, we stood, we sat again. We mostly sat because preachers here don't do sermons or intercessions by half measures.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 Friendly and ordinary. There were a few fresh insights but no great flashes.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Part of a series on the Lord's prayer. This week's theme was, "Give us today our daily bread". With overflowing stocks of food on supermarket shelves, have we become less dependent on God? As bread is the staple of physical life, so Jesus is fundamental of spiritual life. Have we received him? Are we emaciated Christians or those who depend, hand-to-mouth, on him each day?
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The first hymn: "Before the throne of God above". It has terrific words and has been a favourites of mine since student days. It's now coupled with a wonderful Celtic tune.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
From these heights, things took a distinct turn for the worse when we tried to sing a new song written by Chris Idle on a bad day. No one, including pianist and organist, could quite work out how to accomplish the last non-scanning lines of the chorus and everything ground to an embarrassing halt. To prove the point, we tried it again with the same result.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A voice from behind greeted me, asked where I was from and outlined the church's history and emphasis. He also answered the secret of the cinema seats (they came from the Empire cinema, of blessed memory).
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Somehow the preacher had found himself a cup and a piece of cake, but otherwise it seemed invisible. Was this preacher's privilege or did I miss something?
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 Clearly a committed church with very strong missionary links, but a tad staid and unimaginative, I thought. (Couldn't they do better than call their Holiday Bible Club just that?) I suspect they do a narrow line on acceptable biblical interpretation.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It didn't exactly waft freshly baked aromas of the bread of life, but it was a good reminder to seek God on a daily basis. So, in a way, yes.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
As a film buff, it has to be those folding mustard things.