|769: Renewal Christian Centre, Solihull, England|
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Mystery Worshipper: Halle Luyah.
The church: Renewal Christian Centre, Solihull, England.
Denomination: Free Methodist.
The building: First impressions were that it looked like a cross between a fire station and a used car showroom. On entering, it was smart, clean, modern and huge. Rather like the Tardis (looked small outside but went on for ever). Once through the doors, there was a very large foyer, which at first glance confused me. It was so large, I though it was the church sanctuary, but couldn't understand where the chairs were. I wandered through and beyond this was the main auditorium with seating for 850.
The church: The church is also a conference center which is used widely and on a daily basis by the local authority, local NHS organisations and others. The facilities in the church service were very high tech and slick – a good advert for anyone secular coming to see what was on offer.
The neighbourhood: Solihull is an independent metropolitan council to which residents gladly pay their own council tax. The church is on a very busy main road, so traffic jams could be a problem. But it seems the church has thought of this, with the introduction of traffic stewards.
The cast: Pastor Dave Carr (senior minister) and Pastor Rob Williams, who this day was test driving a new idea: pre-recorded video link announcements. Plus eight singers, who were unfortunately in a black and white uniform which made them look contrived and twee. I would have much preferred a variety of attire from knitted twin-sets to frayed jeans, which would have more honestly reflected the congregation. The worship leader, who I didn't get the name of, was very funky with his clip on face mic and Michael Jackson shuffle.
What was the name of the service?
Teaching Family Service.
How full was the building?
Even before I got to the building, I realised I was going to something busy and big. I used the church car park and was directed to a space by a bevy of neon dressed guys, ensuring that the traffic flowed freely and keen worshippers didn't mow down pedestrians. I got there 25 minutes before the service and was astonished to see the foyer already packed with groups of people chatting happily. I sat near the front as the auditorium was empty. By the start of the service it was packed.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
As I wandered through the busy foyer, soaking up the atmosphere and feeling a bit gaga about it all, I was accosted (very pleasantly) by at least three people. They were badged up and their task was to spot new or lost souls, of which I was both. They give me a warm handshake and a cheery hello. Usually I hate stuff like this, but they obviously loved what they were doing, were not over the top and I felt very welcome in a non-threatening way.
Was your pew comfortable?
As this church doubles as a conference centre, the chairs were movable and plastic but made very comfy by the padding in the seat and back. They were not extravagant seats, but they were not mean either.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The atmosphere was buzzing, with what I took to be anticipation. People were smiling a lot and obviously very happy to be there. A highly professional worship group were playing at the front. It was refreshing to see that even this early, they weren't tuning in guitars, plugging in amps or loafing around drinking coffee. They were already worshipping, or so it seemed to me. It wasn't too noisy, so didn't hinder people having conversations.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Can I encourage you, friends, to take your seats as we begin to worship. Isn't God good?"
What books did the congregation use during the service?
At the front of the church there were two huge video link screens, with live pictures of everything happening on the platform. These screens were used to project the words of the songs.
What musical instruments were played?
Two keyboards, electric and acoustic. Two guitars, bass and rhythm. Two sets of drums, a normal one and a bunch of tom toms with other bits of percussion attached. Trombone.
Did anything distract you?
I found the sheer size of the place distracting. Those who go every week must get used to it, but I had a hard time concentrating. I was a wee bit amazed at the place and was looking round open-mouthed for most of the time. I suppose I should get out more.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very definitely happy clappy, and jumping and twirling and applauding and lots and lots of clapping. At every opportunity. For announcements, for good points in the sermon, for good stuff people had done, for people who had fixed up a blocked drain. A bit too much clapping for my liking, but it couldn't take away the impression of sheer exuberance that many of the people had about their leaders, their worship, their church, their God.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 Paster Dave paced. And I don't like pacers. It's a bit like watching a tennis match in slow motion. It was worse for me as I sat near the front so the angle of view tested the full back and forth neck movement quite considerably. Plus he would frequently come and lean over the front rows. He was a forthright speaker and I felt a bit threatened when he came close, thinking he might grab me out and prophesy over a newcomer. Fortunately he didn't.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
John 14: Jesus in the only way. Where do you want to go today? He gave an interesting slant on false teachers and false religions. I did think the sermon was a little condemning at times, with rhetorical questions such as, "When was the last time you spent a chunk of time meditating on God's word?" These questions intimated that he didn't hold the congregation in very high esteem as he seemed to be putting them down rather than building them up.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The worship was very special, the music professional but not invasive, rising and falling, echoing across the congregation and causing waves of delight. The older guy on the acoustic keyboards was highly skilled and totally lost in worshipping God on his piano. Just watching and listening to him lifted my spirits and caused me to rejoice in a God who gives such wonderful talent.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Although the congregation were generally interactive to a normal degree during the sermon, there was one woman who persistently called out: "Great! OK! Right on, pastor! Praise God! Preach it!" After a while I wanted to shout, "Quiet, please," like a Wimbledon umpire. But didn't risk it, as I may have been accused of hindering someone from praising God. But this constant, individual attention seeking interaction, for me at least, severely tested my patience and concentration.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I hung around in the foyer for a few minutes and watched lots of groups having happy chats. But it seemed the official welcomers had now finished their tour of duty and everyone else was busy networking and hadn't time to say hi.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee and tea was served in the foyer at the end of the service, but as the attendance is so huge it is only free to newcomers. It was in plastic cups and looked a bit instant and not terribly hot, so I declined. A nice feature was a water cooler, complete with a supply of little cups, so I helped myself.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 If I lived nearby and wanted to get very involved and fully active in a go-ahead church, then this would be it. I would imagine whatever your talents, this church would be able to find a use for them. The one thing that would hinder me would be the rather unsavoury feeling I was left with, that I'm not really quite good enough to come here as I don't meditate for hours and pray for days, which was the feeling I got from the preacher.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, very. This is what a focused, community-oriented church should be like. Involved in every area, from parenting classes to patchwork quilting, from feeding the homeless to family care centres, from Alpha courses to angelic praise.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The amazing organisation required to run such a large church. The logistics of holding three meetings each Sunday of roughly 850 people each time is stunningly well managed.