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  1019: New Wine, Woolwich, London

New Wine, Woolwich, London

Mystery Worshipper: Mark Wuntoo.
The church: New Wine, Woolwich, South East London.
Denomination: Independent Pentecostal.
The building: Formerly a cinema and purchased by the church in 1999, this impressive building dates from 1937 and is claimed to be the best surviving example in the UK of the "Odeon style" architecture, with continuous curving lines and an art deco interior. On closer inspection, the exterior is seen to be in need of some repair, and once inside I noticed some dampness showing on one of the walls. The visitor is welcomed by a notice which reads "The church where you are valued, not numbered." The building is divided into three primary areas: the Highway (main worship auditorium), the Path (a smaller overflow area and conference hall), and the Avenue (bookshop and restaurant). In addition there are seminar rooms and an outside children's play area. Within the fully carpeted main auditorium is a 20-square-metre control booth wired to closed-circuit television, high resolution digital projection on four large screens, lighting and public address systems, and an ascending/descending pale blue satin curtain stretching across the front of the auditorium. Most of the original appointments are intact and include railings, the toilets, the lighting, the curtain mechanisms, and decorative acoustic wall and ceiling features. The décor speaks for itself, though I am not sure that it gives the best message, being completely devoid of any Christian symbolism.
The church community: Over 40 nationalities are represented in the membership. Today's congregation consisted of more women than men – almost no elderly people and no children. All those on the stage were of West African descent. There is a weekly Bible study, cell groups, prayer meetings, and meetings for the various ministry teams. The church also serves the local community via a food bank for single parent and low income families. Through its various ministries, the church aims "to depopulate hell and populate heaven."
The neighbourhood: New Wine Church is situated in the centre of Woolwich Riverside ward in the London borough of Greenwich, one of the most deprived areas of the UK. The church is close to the town shopping area, a densely populated area of mixed high-rise and terraced housing, the famous Woolwich Free Ferry which sails every few minutes across the River Thames, and the now redundant Woolwich dockyard.
The cast: The worship leader was Sister Funke, supported by four other singers. The preacher was Pastor Vincent Odulele. Brother Alfred sang a solo.

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

How full was the building?
The service began at 9.00am sharp with 100 people present. Within an hour the number had risen to 400, and the final count was about 600. Even so, the auditorium was less than half full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Five people greeted me warmly in the foyer. The worship leader asked the congregation to clap their hands to welcome visitors. The eight people sitting near to me warmly shook my hand and said "Welcome." The musicians sang Welcome to our church. I felt a bit overwhelmed but greatly valued.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, the original, plush cinema seat was a real treat but did little to encourage me to stand for the singing.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Ushers showed people to their seats, filling the front rows first and allowing for no unoccupied spaces between us. There was fairly loud pre-recorded music being played over the public address system which drowned out any other noise. I wondered if the mighty Wurlitzer organ would rise from the floor as the service got under way, but I was disappointed to see it didn't.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! Blessed be the Name of the Lord. The Lord is good all the time."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. All hymns, songs and notices were displayed on the screens. People had their own Bibles, including the young woman next to me who read from her electronic copy.

What musical instruments were played?
Two keyboards, a bass guitar, and a full drum kit – all heavily amplified.

Did anything distract you?
Four large hangings that looked very much like trampolines left me wondering if they had been brought in for a keep-fit class. And I never did discover the whereabouts of two of the digital projectors.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship began loudly and was very lively. Many people raised their hands, danced and clapped. The exuberance was greatly facilitated by the worship leader – I have not seen a better mistress of ceremonies in many years. She was aided to no small degree by the technicians, who lowered and raised the lights as appropriate for the singing, the video presentations and the sermon.

New Wine, Woolwich, London

Exactly how long was the sermon?
32 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – For me, the content deserved only 5 but the delivery was worth 7. So, an average of 6. The preacher cannot be assessed without reference to the ambience ' as he arrived on stage the blue curtain descended behind him, and when he left the curtain was raised to reveal the musicians gliding onto the stage area on their dais. He kept calling us "ladies and gentlemen," which struck me as quaint. He asked us repeatedly, "Are you with me this morning? Wave your hands if you're with me!" and "Say 'God'," and "Talk to me, someone." This was amusing at first, but it got a bit boring after a time. Pastor Vincent is a young man but had that old-time preacher style about him, striding back and forth on stage with great energy.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Pastor Vincent spoke from Genesis chapter 1 'verse zero'. Before the beginning, there was no beginning. God said 'Let there be' and there was. So today, God reveals truth to us. If you are in church this morning feeling you are nothing, then you are a candidate for God. Let the light of God shine. The revelation of his truth to you will set you free. The black man [he actually used a different word I sha'n't repeat here] standing in front of you knows what I mean.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Brother Alfred sang his solo, His eye is on the sparrow, with a powerful voice and powerful emotion. It was superb.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The "staging" of worship left little room for congregational spontaneity, which in my experience is an important aspect of Pentecostal worship. Given the large number of worshippers and the fact that another service followed soon afterward, perhaps this was a deliberate and necessary ploy. The constant repetition of rather trite phrases such as "God is good" did not add anything for me – rather, they interfered with the flow of worship.

If intercessory prayers were said, what issues were raised?
There were no prayers of intercession at all, no mention of the Pope and not a word about the general election, although I was told that the previous week's sermon was all about the election.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Although the senior pastor announced that visitors would be identified and welcomed by a host and taken for coffee, I stood around for ages holding my welcome pack in front of me without anyone speaking to me.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
When I eventually asked where I could get a cup of coffee, I was directed to a vending machine round the corner. It didn't make sense, it didn't add-up, and, sadly, my sense of being valued evaporated. I could only guess what the machine coffee tasted like.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – If I were Pentecostal and of West African descent, I'm sure I would be very comfortable and committed here. But inasmuch as my denomination and ethnic background are different, I think I would find this church rather too challenging.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
During the service I was very pleased to be part of an apparently joyful and connected congregation. There certainly was lots of entertainment value. But it didn't reach my innermost being, I suppose because it all seemed rather orchestrated.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The high-tech performance and the feeling of being in a cinema for much of the time. Even the notices were presented in the style of cinema advertisements, slick and colourful video presentations. I shall probably still be trying to understand the preacher's use of the word I shan'n't repeat, although within its context I'm sure he knew exactly what he meant.
 
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