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2337: Redeemer Central, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Redeemer, Belfast (Exterior)
Mystery Worshipper: Banana Fillets.
The church: Redeemer Central, Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Denomination: Independent. They are part of Newfrontiers.
The building: Redeemer Central moved into the old Donegall Street Congregational Church in January 2012. It’s a beautiful old stone-clad church with stained glass windows. The ground floor (the hall) is open while the church and balcony are upstairs. The upstairs sanctuary has a slightly raised stage where the choir box would have been in the previous congregation. The chains from the ceiling that held the lights at the front have been extended, and Ikea-style spherical paper light shades hang at the same height as the band members’ heads. Window sills around the sanctuary were littered with battery-operated LED tea lights/candles flickering away throughout the service.
The church: It’s a church plant that started meeting midweek above Pizza Express, then moved to a local arts venue on a Sunday morning, and has finally taken over its present building. They sponsor "City:Groups", small groups that meet midweek in various parts of the city. They also host a series of meetings geared toward letting newcomers know what Redeemer Central is all about. They make a point of saying that their website is chock full of valuable information about Redeemer Central.
The neighbourhood: The church’s neighbours include the Irish News and Belfast Telegraph newspaper offices, and the University of Ulster’s Belfast campus. At one end of the street is St Patrick’s Catholic church, and in the opposite direction, the Anglican St Anne’s Cathedral. Across the road is the well-known Kremlin gay nightclub.
The cast: Gillian Stewart, a member of the leadership team, opened the service. David Armstrong, worship team leader, led the worship. The preacher was David Capener, team leader.
The date & time: Sunday, 12 February 2012, 10.30am (with tea and coffee served one-half hour before).

What was the name of the service?
Sunday Gathering.

How full was the building?
There were somewhere between 100 and 120 people at the service. Plenty of room in the transepts and the small gallery for more, but nicely full in the main body of the church. More than half the congregation were student aged, noticeably style conscious, and more females than male. Some more middle-aged folk with young children, and a few older people too.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was greeted at the door by a man standing outside in the gazebo tent they erect on the pavement. He immediately asked if my daughter and I were here for the first time. He passed us over to a lady inside – Charis, wife of one of the elders elect – who was very chatty and walked us across to Andrew at the tea/coffee table. He stayed with us right until we were halfway up the stairs on our way into the main sanctuary and the start of the service. It was a warm and organised welcome!

Was your pew comfortable?
Old wooden pews with a thin woolly covering over them. But the pew wasn’t a problem. Two hours sitting in the cold was the major discomfort!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The downstairs of the church was buzzing as people arrived and grabbed biscuits and tea/coffee in mugs. Many took the mugs upstairs into the service. People were also signing their kids into the children’s ministry that starts during the first block of worship. The couple in the pew behind said hello to us. Others smiled as they took their seats nearby.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning. Good morning. Good to see everyone. How are you?"

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Lyrics were projected up on a big screen mounted in the middle of the no-longer-used organ pipes. There were a lot of copies of The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, in the pews. We were encouraged to take Bibles home if we didn't have them at home, and to take copies for friends also.

What musical instruments were played?
Keyboard, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, drums, and singers: two female, four male.

Did anything distract you?
It was cold inside! Having moved into an older building, they’ve been having problems with the boiler. While an industrial air heater was switched on at the start of the service, it was soon taken downstairs to warm up the children’s ministry room. By the end of the two hour service, I could see the condensation as I breathed out through my mouth. Many people put their anoraks and jackets back on. There was also an increasing exodus to the loo. They’ll get the boiler fixed eventually. Then the only distractions will be that the subwoofers are turned up a bit too high, and the words on the projector screen tended to lag behind the band.

Redeemer Central, Belfast (Interior)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Worship was fairly modern, and the singing from the congregation was excellent. They sang seven songs during a 45 minute block of worship. Lots of repeated verses and refrains. At one point David asked for a song ("Faithful one") to be sung again unaccompanied. While there was some older material, at least one of the songs had been penned by the leader of the music group. Communion was "do it yourself": people stepped forward, broke off a piece of bread roll, dipped it in a cup (one looked like juice, the other like wine), popped it in their mouths and went back to their seats. Communion wasn’t ministered. No blessing from the front.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
52 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – While the preacher had notes sitting on a stool, he didn’t refer to them very often. At the start he said there were three points. Quite a lot of repetition. The first two points took at least 40 minutes, leaving the last one a bit rushed. Preacher also had an annoying habit of acting things out. One point in the sermon was going to unlock something for people in the congregation. He illustrated this my stepping forward and acting out putting a large imaginary key into an imaginary lock and turning it several times.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
"Blood and Glue" was the on-screen title of the sermon. The early church glued themselves to the breaking of the bread. Blood unites (or glues) what sin destroys, so we shouldn’t gossip about each other or speak ill of the church. The blood of Jesus is superior to the blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:24) in the sense that an iPhone 4s is far, far superior to a 1990s Nokia mobile. Christians are on the side that has already won, but a bit like Liverpool winning the Premiership three games before the end of the season, we still have to go out and do battle.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Can’t quite decide if this is heaven or hell! Twenty-five minutes into the sermon, the preacher started into an analogy about the difference between listening to the Holy Spirit and to the voice of the evil one. He said that it was "a little bit like the power of Santa Claus" and related how parents threaten to "tell Santa" (who isn't real) when their children misbehave, in order to cajole them into behaving.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
After this service, I’m nearly certain hell might have some cold areas as well as blazing fires. There was no offering, and no one said that the plastic bowls sitting around the place were offering plates that could be used on the way in or out. The way they did communion was less of a shared meal and more of a snack with just you and the Lord.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
My daughter and I stayed in the pew as the service ended. About a minute later, Andrew – one of the welcomers – popped into the pew to ask how we’d found the service. The preacher, David, spoke to us when we got out into the aisle – though he’d didn’t mention Santa again! And as we were heading toward the stairs, Charis, another of our welcomers, dashed over to us to shake hands and make sure she connected before we left.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Pre-service biscuits plus tea, coffee, or juice from pump flasks. They have real mugs, which made the tea taste a lot better than a polystyrene cup. And the kids drank out of Ikea plastic cups. Quite a few people brought their mugs upstairs. (Tip: the thin beige mugs fit in behind the wooden rail that holds the Bibles to the pew in front.)

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – As a church it has lots of stuff going for it. Friendly, welcoming, a sense of love for the city they’ve planted the church in, working at community. While the heating was bust, they'd worked around it by hiring in a heater and keeping the kids warm at the expense of the grown-ups. That was a good call. Pity the worship and sermon weren’t a bit snappier given the circumstances. It’s probably a little bit too loud and a bit too middle class for me, but tastes vary.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. I was glad to find a community of believers who hadn’t just set up a new church in a city that is frankly over-churched – in terms of buildings – but had a passion to serve God in their new community.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Cold blood, warm welcome.
 
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