|739: High Road Baptist, Ilford, Essex, England|
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Mystery Worshipper: Mystery Librarian.
The church: High Road Baptist, Ilford, Essex, England.
The church: This is one of the larger Baptist churches in Ilford, with 115 members according to the Baptist handbook. It is actively involved in the local community with such activities as pre-school and after-school clubs, a welcome centre and language classes. The church also runs a youth club, men's group, Alpha course and cell groups.
The neighbourhood: The church is a few minutes from the main shopping centre of Ilford, though at the slightly run down end of the High Street. Many of the shops in the immediate area are takeaways but there are also a couple of taxi firms, a dry cleaners and an office supply company. There is a large Catholic church and church centre almost next door and a Catholic bookshop on the other side of the road.
The cast: Rev. Ivan King, minister of the Cranbrook Baptist Church, led the service. Rev. Steve Chalke of Oasis Trust was the preacher and there were also contributions from leaders of local Baptist churches who spoke about their churches' community involvement and projects.
What was the name of the service?
London Baptist Association North East Group Evening Celebration.
How full was the building?
There were several hundred people present. The main body of the church was well filled and there were also people in the gallery. The congregation came from many of the Baptist churches in and around Ilford, as well as the High Road congregation.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. A man outside the main door shook my hand as I arrived and a young woman inside greeted me and handed me some promotional literature about Steve Chalke's "Faithworks" project.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was reasonably comfortable as hard wooden pews go.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was fairly chatty to begin with though the music group led the early arrivals in singing before the service had officially begun.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The first formal words of the service were, "Good evening. Welcome to another celebration of Baptist Christians together".
What books did the congregation use during the service?
No hymn books were used as the words of the songs were provided with an overhead projector. There were Good News Bibles in the pews.
What musical instruments were played?
The singing was led by a very accomplished worship band consisting of singers, guitars, flute, keyboards, drums and conga drums.
Did anything distract you?
Not a lot. Only the sun shining in my eyes from an upstairs window during the early part of the service, plus some children running out to the toilet and occasionally banging the door.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Fairly happy clappy, with hand-clapping and upraised arms.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
One hour and ten minutes!
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 Steve Chalke gave a brilliant address, full of humour and funny stories but making some serious points in a manner that the congregation would not easily forget. The high point was his hilarious pop explanation of the Enlightenment and the tendency of the modern world to keep religious belief in the private sphere rather than allow it to influence public life. Half way through Steve led the congregation in the singing of the old Sunday School chorus "You in your small corner, and I in mine" before completely demolishing its sentiments as unbiblical.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was an extended plea for Christians to make greater inroads into public life and to become involved in community projects. There were many stories and examples from Steve Chalke's personal experience, plus a certain amount of sanctified name dropping. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown featured fairly prominently, as did Anne Widdecombe and Tony Benn.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I was glad that the service avoided the extended and interminable chorus singing that sometimes spoils large scale evangelical and charismatic celebrations of this kind. The singing was lively and enjoyable but the organisers gave plenty of time for the guest preacher to deliver his intended address.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I noticed that some of the older members of the congregation looked a little uncomfortable having to stand up throughout the singing sessions. Some of them eventually sat down, where they were probably unable to see the words on the overhead projector screen.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A member of the congregation approached me and asked whether I was a reporter from the local newspaper, because he had seen me taking notes during the service!
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None was served. It would probably not have been feasible with a congregation of this size.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 I would certainly consider High Road if I was looking for a local congregation, though the claim on the church website that they use "mostly modern songs on OHP" might put me off. I prefer a bit more variety and I don't see why the church should be stuck in the late 20th century any more than the 19th.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. The service was lively, inspiring, and had an important message: Christians should take their faith into the community and not hide behind the walls of their church buildings.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
There are several possibilities – but I think I will opt for Steve Chalke's accounts of his dealings with the cynical journalist Matthew Norman and how the latter once attributed some completely fictitious quotes about Anne Widdecombe's breasts to Steve in his Guardian column.