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1807: Huddersfield Christian Fellowship, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, England
Huddersfield Christian Fellowship, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, England
Mystery Worshipper: Lone Wolf.
The church: Huddersfield Christian Fellowship, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, England.
Denomination: Independent. They are affiliated with Ministers Fellowship Europe, the European branch of Ministers Fellowship International.
The building: They call their building Cathedral House. Brand new (it was dedicated in May 2009) and costing 14m, it is a large modern building with two massive stone monoliths flanking the main entrance, each topped with a large satellite dish antenna. Inside there are numerous teaching rooms, a bookshop, and a café, the latter overlooking the auditorium where the service took place. The auditorium itself consisted of a huge floor space covered in carefully arranged seats looking onto a large stage where the musical equipment was located. The rear of the stage was decorated with small green lights set into a black curtain, giving the unfortunate impression that this was, in fact, a cheap Blackpool hotel in which a low budget cabaret was about to take place.
The church: The congregation has grown massively over the last ten years and attracts a wide following of people of all ages from a variety of nationalities. Aside from Sunday services, the church has a range of groups in which the congregation can become involved, including a variety of youth groups, men's breakfasts, and seminars for married couples. The church also has a number of what its website describes as "business interests," including the aforementioned bookshop and café, a children's play gym, and a charity shop (I can't be certain, but the charity in question appears to be the church itself). Notably, only members are allowed to serve the church in any way. Those wishing to become part of the membership must complete a 26 week course.
The neighbourhood: Huddersfield, in West Yorkshire, has been settled since before Roman times and was mentioned in the Domesday Book. It has been a market town since Saxon times. During the Industrial Revolution, the Luddites, textile artisans who feared the loss of their livelihood, staged attacks against several Huddersfield mills. Even so, the town was said to be the largest in all of Europe whose economy was based primarily on textiles. Huddersfield is noted for many fine examples of Victorian architecture – the railway station, for example, having been described as "a stately home with trains in it." The church's website includes a link to several "fascinating facts" about the town. There, one may learn that the local football stadium won the Building of the Year award in 1995 and that employers in the area include the university, the council, and the local National Health Service trust. The church's immediate neighbourhood is mainly industrial. There is a leisure park, including a large casino, directly across the road from the building. The church must therefore draw its congregation from across the town.
The cast: Surnames appear to be considered unimportant at this church, nor is everyone identified by full name on their website. A young woman named Michelle gave the opening greeting and led the worship. Jonny, who I believe was Jonny Skinner, elder and youth leader, read the notices. Andy Gibbons delivered the message.
The date & time: Sunday, 6 September 2009, 10.30am.

What was the name of the service?
Sunday Service.

How full was the building?
The building was around 80 per cent full, which, considering it reportedly holds 2,500 people, is pretty impressive.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A gentleman named John leapt on me as soon as I entered the door, picking up on the fact that I was new. He handed me a welcome CD and pen and led me into the auditorium, where he introduced me to the care team. They, in turn, sat me beside another young man wearing a name badge who chatted to me before the service began and who helpfully told me what was happening as it progressed. Somebody else came to introduce himself during the half-time break.

Was your pew comfortable?
We sat on very comfortable, well-cushioned chairs into which I gratefully collapsed following the opening worship session, which must have lasted at least 45 minutes.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The pre-service atmosphere was very noisy. People chatted and loud music played while church notices were projected onto the walls at the front.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, everybody! Isn't it great to be in the house of God?" To which the congregation responded with clapping and whooping.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
There were no books. Most people brought Bibles and notebooks. The songs were projected onto the walls.

What musical instruments were played?
There was a large worship band and choir, who made use of a grand piano, various types of guitars, a trumpet, a French horn, a flute, and an extensive drum kit.

Did anything distract you?
I was mainly distracted by wondering why the complicated and expensive-looking light rigging positioned above the stage was deemed necessary for a church, and by my fear that cabaret singer Jane MacDonald, of cruise line fame, was about to step from behind the curtain to sing a few ill-chosen songs. There were other lesser distractions, too: the young boy in front of me reading the "cheatz" page of a computer game magazine; another member of the congregation agreeing vocally with everything the preacher said; the appalling ignorance of the rules of grammar on the part of whoever made up the slides – one song, for example, consisted almost entirely of interrogatives, with nary a question mark in sight; and the incredible thirst which I began to feel 90 minutes into the two-and-a-half hour service.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The best words I can think of to describe the worship are "loud" and "energetic." Michelle, who led the singing, had apparently consumed an extraordinary amount of coffee that morning – nothing else could possibly explain the energy with which she marched around the stage with her arms in the air singing and shouting to the crowd in an annoyingly happy voice. The congregation joined in the songs, all of which were modern and some of which were written by the church's own musical director, as they bounced up and down with their arms in the air like Winnie the Pooh's friend Tigger on speed. Michelle thanked the congregation when they clapped after the songs, making me wonder whether this was a worship session or a concert. Were we clapping God or the band? There were also two solo performances which fitted perfectly with the cabaret-like backdrop and which caused me to look around in the expectation that Simon Cowell, of the TV amateur talent programme Britain's Got Talent, was seated up in the balcony grimacing.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
48 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Andy Gibbons appeared to be the cabaret's terrible comedian, beginning his sermon with a series of mildly amusing anecdotes that he clearly believed to be funnier than they were. His sermon consisted of a series of points that failed to flow into one another. One or two of the Bible references in his accompanying PowerPoint were wrong. The message itself, however, was carefully chosen, encouraging and thought-provoking. The sermon was followed by an opportunity for response, during which those who were aware of sin's hold over them were invited to the front and those who wanted to become Christians were asked to raise their hands.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was on the subject "Developing the Character of Christ" and took as its starting point 1 Timothy 4:12 ("Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity"). We need to set an example to others through our character, which should be notable for its distinguishing qualities, its high moral strength and its good reputation. God cares more about our character than our competencies. Thus, we should be constantly seeking to develop our hearts so that they become more like that of Christ. Such development requires that we are filled with the Spirit, increasingly holy, growing in our maturity, and ready to face sufferings, trials and temptations positively. We should also be aware of those things that can dim our character, including our relationships with non-Christians, what we watch and listen to, and sin in our lives.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sermon made me think carefully about what my priorities in life are and whether I am more concerned with being moulded to fit Christ's example or with what people think about me. It was a very thought-provoking message. I was also very impressed that I was recognised as new by so many people despite the massive congregation.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The church's self-obsession was incredibly concerning. During the notices, newcomers were told repeatedly that the church was a good one. The sermon noted a number of things which the church did "with excellence." A report on a Texas church given by a team which had visited it claimed that it was a good fellowship because it was "like ours." I left wondering why the church felt it needed God at all if it did everything so well. The worship leader's apparent need to prefix everybody's name with "the wonderful" was also incredibly annoying and just seemed insincere, as did the false enthusiasm displayed by the greeters and care team, who appeared to have been trained by Walmart.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was no chance to look lost. The companion to whom the care team had assigned me took me upstairs for coffee and hardly left my side.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I didn't get the opportunity to try it. Apparently there was a mix-up over who was on coffee duty. The only means of getting a drink was from the one functioning vending machine, which had a queue a mile long. After standing in line with my aforementioned companion for ten minutes, I was so overcome by thirst that I had to go home before I passed out.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – Although the sermon was very good and made me think carefully about how I might become more like Christ, the message didn't seem to fit with the apparent insincerity and self-obsession of the church.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Quite the opposite. All but the sermon made me feel embarrassed to be there.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The church's failure to recognise that it has so much upon which it could improve. Oh, yes, and the solo sung by "the wonderful Doug."
 
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