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2275: Strandtown Baptist, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Strandtown Baptist, Belfast
Mystery Worshipper: Servetus.
The church: Strandtown Baptist, Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Denomination: Association of Baptist Churches in Ireland.
The building: The building is set just below pavement level, so from the road you see a sunken bit of wall topped by a massive roof. It's not that big overall, and every inch of space inside is carefully employed. In the sanctuary itself, both the ceiling and walls are characterised by lots of angles and recesses, the purpose of which is not altogether clear. The decor is minimal and the stage is very low and cluttered with instruments.
The church: Today witnessed the introduction of a potential new pastor who was there to preach with a view to being officially called. There is a noticeable trend within Northern Ireland's Baptist assemblies to go without full-time pastors for protracted periods of time, and there are presently around 50 congregations with no one at the helm. To their credit, SBC appear keen to avoid the temptation to save money by relying on pulpit supply. They sponsor a large variety of activities for folks of all ages, all listed in detail on their website.
The neighbourhood: The church is situated along the Belmont Road area of East Belfast, which is a fairly affluent neighbourhood and part of the Bible Belt, there being literally dozens of churches in the immediate area. There are two very posh schools on the road and a nice parkland area too. The further one drives along the road heading out of town, the bigger and more wealthy the housing becomes.
The cast: The service was led by two men named Eddie and Nigel. The preaching was done by the Revd Lee Campbell, who has applied to be their new pastor.
The date & time: Sunday, 20 November 2011, 10.45am.

What was the name of the service?
Sunday Morning Service.

How full was the building?
It was packed. There was an overflow area that was opened shortly before the start, and this rapidly filled up also. Well over 200 people, I would guess.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. I was greeted at the door by a woman named Ruth (she had a name badge). Before the start, another four people took the time to say hello, three of whom introduced themselves and made polite small talk.

Was your pew comfortable?
The chairs are stylish blue plastic with metal-tube frames. They had a thin cushion and were quite flexible. Very comfy indeed. But they were also joined together and it felt a bit tightly packed.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very loud. When I entered, there were groups of people standing around chatting. By the start the noise was almost deafening, as the building was full and everyone seemed to be in full-flow.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning. Hello." Then a long introduction to the first song, which was barely audible over the sound of many people still talking!

What books did the congregation use during the service?
None.

What musical instruments were played?
Electric piano, electric and acoustic guitars, a cello, and drums.

Did anything distract you?
The PowerPoint slides containing the lyrics had moving backgrounds that appeared to be linked to the theme of the music. I like the idea of this, but for me it did not help to focus on the message of the song. Also, I noticed a chair tucked under the eucharistic table and wondered if the bread and, erm, juice would be served up family-style. (The man named Eddie did sit down, but only to wait until the servers returned with the leftovers.)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was contemporary music and played very well indeed. Most of the songs left me cold, however. I barely knew any of them, and some of the pieces I found incredibly difficult to sing at all. The eucharist was celebrated near the beginning of the service. I found this encouraging, as most Baptist churches in Northern Ireland usually tag it on to the end of worship as something of an optional extra – most opting to leave at this point.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
33 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – The new minister was clearly quite nervous, as there was quite a lot riding on this sermon and it wouldn't be fair to be overly critical. But the reading was awkward and disjointed, with emphasis in all the wrong places. Also, his facial expressions didn't always match the words he was saying. However, he is clearly quite sincere and seems very personable.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
His text was Matthew 5:1-16 (the Sermon on the Mount). What are the marks of a disciple? Today, as always, there is a temptation for the Christian simply to blend in with the surrounding culture. But Jesus calls us to stand out and be different. He needs "salty Christians" who will be distinct from the world so that they may usefully serve the world. Jesus does not call us to leave the world either, but to be distinct in the world for the purpose of allowing the light of his gospel to shine clearly and be seen and known.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
For me the eucharist is one of the key rituals that Christians can perform together, as it is so full of mystery and meaning. However, I was disappointed that we were ministered individual portions rather than sharing a common cup. The juice itself was heavily diluted and gross!

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Nigel, the worship leader, quite impressed me at the beginning of the service, but he started to get on my nerves after a while. He led well and is clearly a gifted musician, but he had the annoying habit of giving fairly long introductions to every single musical item. By the end I was ready to scream!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I stationed myself bravely right in an open space in the middle of the hall. I had to wait only for a short time before I was picked up and engaged in several minutes of friendly banter, which was not in the least unpleasant.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The coffee was quite good, fairly-traded, and they allowed me to add my own milk (some places have it already in the cup). Also, the biscuits weren't what you'd bring out if the vicar came for a visit, but they weren't the cheapest of the bunch either. So overall not a bad experience. Just a few extra pounds in the budget and this could be great!

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – I felt very welcome here. The people seem naturally friendly and there is a real buzz about the place. It is a hive of activity and they are very involved in the neighbourhood. I can definitely think of worse places to end up!

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Sure.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Eddie sitting down at the table while the servers ministered the eucharist.
 
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