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916: Barking Baptist Tabernacle, Barking, London, England
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Barking Baptist Tabernacle, Barking, East London
Mystery Worshipper: Mark Wuntoo.
The church: Barking Baptist Tabernacle, Barking, East London.
Denomination: Baptist.
The building: Built in 1893 in typical Baptist church style: squarish without anything that looks like a spire and with ancillary halls and rooms. Worship took place in a rear hall, which is a much more suitable space than the large, rather dim main church area.
The church: It felt that the congregation is struggling, possibly with a limited vision of their potential or a pervading sense of helplessness. It was significant that two key leaders (husband and wife) were on holiday. This was mentioned and it was evident that those present had some difficulty in tying together some loose ends (for example, the public address system did not appear to work and nobody went forward to sort it out). So far as I could ascertain, activities on the premises include only church groups rather than groups for or run by the local community.
The neighbourhood: This building is situated next door to a branch of The Redeemed Christian Church of God (we heard the singing), almost opposite a Roman Catholic Church (we heard the bells) and round the corner from a Methodist Church. The church is sandwiched between large blocks of flats and Barking town centre shops – an ideal contact point to passing-by pedestrians if the church had the strength and wished to serve in this way.
The cast: Rev. Colin Marchant, a visiting Baptist minister, past President of The Baptist Union. Another minister who happened to be visiting read the lesson. There is no resident minister at present in this church.
What was the name of the service?
Morning worship.

How full was the building?
About 55 present, filling three quarters of the seats (rather less after the children and their leaders had left).

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Three men warmly welcomed me and shook my hand at the door. Several people smiled as they arrived and took their seats.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, a padded seat.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Not quiet, not noisy. A comfortable buzz which did not intrude on those who wished to remain silent, yet made me feel relaxed and ready to worship.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning. I'm Colin and I come from East Ham and we are all here to worship and be the church together."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
No hymn books were used. Songs (from Songs of Fellowship) were displayed on an overheard projector. New International Version Bibles were handed to us as we arrived and the page number of the reading was announced.

What musical instruments were played?
An electronic keyboard played with a sort of harmonium sound in the style of a piano.

Did anything distract you?
Not really. At one point there were some "noises off", but I concluded that this was the Pentecostal church next door.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was fairly informally led and based on a sort of non-conformist hymn-sandwich.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
26 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Colin is known nationally for his critical analysis of the urban church and his ability to identify, welcome and include all sorts of Christian groups within the church. This was evident in the whole conduct of the service – finding opportunities to include and affirm individuals' experience, to bring to our minds those who worshipped alongside in other buildings and to highlight trends within the church in East London. Colin is a good storyteller and he used this to good effect in the service. He was obviously confident and self-assured and showed his gift of pastoral caring. All this helped at the times when the congregation were less forthcoming.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Colin preached from Romans 12: the human body and the body of Christ are both one, made up of many parts, working together with a purpose. These four main points were written on flip cards. The Atlas of the Human Body begins with a chapter on the head, which controls all other parts of the body. The head of the church is not the elder, secretary or minister, but Jesus Christ. Just as in the human body, where bits which are not seen can be very important and when bits become weak they can be compensated by other bits, so in the church. The church needs everyone to exercise their gifts. Colin tried to shock us into realising that we are the body of Christ and we are here not for ourselves but for the world.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The emphasis on looking outward was a welcome element, and not always evident in churches which are struggling. It was good to have a number of ethnic groupings represented.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Nothing made me angry (and it doesn't take a lot) or particularly uncomfortable, except, perhaps, the Bible reading which excluded everyone who is not male and the passage seemed to go on and on about men. The reader, as a guest, presumably felt unable to comment on the exclusive language and the preacher presumably did not see it as an issue for that congregation. Some might argue that the baby was noisy; however the mother was sensitive and in my opinion it helps to keep us earthed to hear different sounds in church. Although there was a surprisingly large percentage of teenagers present, the age group less represented was that between this and the young middle-aged.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Not much. The preacher spoke to me but only one other person appeared to realise that I was there – or did they feel embarrassed because they recognised my face but could not place me, as the last time I visited this church I was dressed as a clown?

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was no coffee, no tea, nor any easily accessible way of having fellowship that I could see.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, there was a warmth in the way that the service was led and there were a few points when the congregation responded to a question from the leader (although there were other occasions when it was very hard going and the sound of silence was embarrassing).

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The sermon picture of the headless chicken flouncing round the garden. Perhaps this was because I had had a similar experience!
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