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1872: Hoole Baptist, Hoole, Chester, England
Hoole Baptist, Hoole, England
Mystery Worshipper: Caroline.
The church: Hoole Baptist, Hoole, Chester, England.
Denomination: Baptist Union of Great Britain.
The building: A very plain brick building with arched windows. They actually meet for worship in the community centre next door; the church itself was used for after-service coffee. The church consists of a rectangular room with large open spaces furnished with sofas. There was plenty of room to socialise. The community centre, on the other hand, is a very dated and dull building. The entrance was hard to find and no signage was provided. The room had no carpet in the main hall and no real decoration, and was split into two halves by a partition wall that opened up. There were windows along one side of the room, but even so, it was fairly dark in the building.
The church: The congregation was established about 60 years ago and is community based, with not many traveling in from the outside. Everyone seemed to know each other well. They seem to have a lot going on, e.g. a football team. There are a number of groups especially directed toward men. They pride themselves on cordial ecumenical relationships with other churches in the area.
The neighbourhood: Hoole is a suburb to the east of Chester, a city in Cheshire near the border with Wales. Its name is believed to mean "at the hole," perhaps referring to a Roman road. It is a residential area with Victorian terraced houses, and is home to many hotels, guest houses, and bed and breakfasts. The church is located in a section of Hoole that doesn't particularly stand out from the rest.
The cast: The Revd Andy Glover, minister (apparently – we had to ask to find out!), led the service. Someone whose name was not given opened with a reading from Isaiah. The minister was wearing a fleece and I did not recognise him from the beginning, nor did he introduce himself.
The date & time: Sunday, 13 December 2009, 10.30am.

What was the name of the service?
Morning Celebration.

How full was the building?
Fairly full – more than two-thirds.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Road signs pointed to the church, but there was no board outside and nothing on the walls inside to indicate that this was a church or when the service times were. Likewise there was no notice that worship would be held in the adjoining community centre. We heard music and followed the sound, stopping to ask a gentleman where we should go. Once we arrived, we were handed a leaflet. After sitting down, we were greeted by a gentleman sitting next to us, as well as by a couple who arrived after we did and sat near us.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, it was comfortable, but warm (we had chosen a seat by a radiator) and somewhat cramped. I banged heads twice with person in front of me as we sat down.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
We arrived 10 minutes before service time but the place was very empty. The band were playing softly. We feared that this would be just another empty service. But on the dot at 10.30 everyone suddenly walked in. It was almost as if they had been congregating elsewhere until the right moment. Some people arrived later – see below.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Hello. Welcome to the third Sunday in Advent. We are going to do a reading from Isaiah."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Worship music projected onto a screen. The screen was difficult to see due to the shape and layout of the room, plus there were Christmas decorations in the way. There were some Bibles scattered around on various seats, but they must have been the extra-sharp-vision edition, as the print was very small and very difficult to read.

What musical instruments were played?
Keyboard, guitar and drums.

Did anything distract you?
The layout of chairs was distracting and annoying; a moment's thought could have made for a better arrangement all around. As latecomers arrived, they had to walk past the front to get a seat – I'm sure they felt intimidated by everyone else eyeballing them. I also had the feeling that I obviously stood out as a visitor.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
There were prayers during the service, all ad-libbed either from the front or by someone in the congregation. A communion service was included at the end of the minister's talk following a time of quiet reflection. The elements were passed round to each individual person to take. The music was easy listening style, although contemporary, mid 90s. Not challenging. During one hymn, "The light of the world," we sang the chorus over and over again but for some reason left out the verses!

Exactly how long was the sermon?
24 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 – I didn't realise straight away that Pastor Glover had started. He mentioned some biblical passages but didn't tell us where to find them. They were not projected onto the screen. I had a panicky feeling as I thumbed rapidly through the extra-small-print pages trying to find what he was referring to, but he was done long before I succeeded. The sermon was repetitive and it was hard to know what his point was. There were no illustrations, visual or by way of example.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He referred to Hebrews 1 (God spoke in the past through prophets, but in these days through his Son). God speaks. How should we listen? (I don't think he ever actually answered that question.)

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Someone was moved to speak in tongues. A lady went forward and spoke to the minister, who then told us that she had a tongue. He explained quite well what this was, and then she began to speak. The minister asked if anyone had an interpretation, and after a brief silence another lady who was sitting down spoke out. We then went back to the time of silence. No one in the service said anything or reacted in any way. I was surprised that this felt not in the least uncomfortable – in fact, it was heavenly!

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
We felt very much out of place in a closed community. No welcoming words for newcomers were spoken. I'm not sure they get many visitors.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was no mention of what a visitor should do, no housekeeping or welcome. The pastor's wife (we think) came to talk to us, but as soon as we told her we were visiting on holiday, she seemed to lose interest. We asked her if there was coffee, but she told someone else to show us. It just felt like we had been dismissed! To that other person's credit, though, she escorted us to the coffee and spoke with us until it was time to leave.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Tea in proper mugs, which was OK.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – I'm not sure we would be embraced. I would also feel wound up by the things done poorly which could easily be rectified. Overall it felt like an easy listening concert, not dynamic Sunday worship.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Generally, yes. Despite it all, it was a time of quiet reflection. It felt safe.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The fact that latecomers had to enter in full view of everyone else. Had I been late, and not Mystery Worshipping, I would have been reluctant to enter under those conditions.
 
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