City Gates Church, Ilford, Essex

City Gates, Ilford, Essex, England


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Mystery Worshipper: Party Girl
Church: City Gates
Location: Ilford, Essex, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 2 May 2010, 11:30am

The building

The church has its own building, but the service I went to was held in the Cineworld cinema in Ilford, just round the corner from the church.

The church

The church congregation covers a wide age range, and is predominantly black (I would say about 10 per cent of the congregation I saw was white). The church is involved in many community projects, including a drug rehabilitation programme for teenagers, a day nursery for pre-school children, and community-based courses for adults which lead to recognised qualifications. It also offers several in-house courses on marriage, divorce, pastoral skills, and a foundational course for new believers. The church also supports an academy for underprivileged children in the Philippines.

The neighborhood

Both the church building and the cinema are in Ilford town centre. Ilford is a large suburban town in north-east London. It is a significant commercial and retail centre.

The cast

The lady who led the worship didn't give her name, but I think, from looking at the website, it was Velveta McGregor. The preacher was the pastor, Stephen Derbyshire, who is an ex-heroin addict.

What was the name of the service?

There wasn't a name; it was simply one of the two regular Sunday morning services at the church.

How full was the building?

By the time the service started (at 11.37am) there were approximately 100 people there. By the time it ended (at 1.10pm) there were about 400 people there! The latecomers got their wrists smacked, so to speak, during the sermon.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

When I walked in, there was a man holding some leaflets. However, he was staring out of the window, so I had to ask him, "Can I have a leaflet, please?" He apologised for being distracted and said "Good morning" as he handed me a leaflet. When I went through the door to the cinema's Screen One, I was handed another leaflet (different from the first one) and the man said to me, "Good morning, sister." Very Pentecostal!

Was your pew comfortable?

Very! I've been to this cinema quite often to see films, but never for a church service.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I waited outside in the main foyer (along with lots of other people) as those attending the 9.30am service left. There were also people waiting to go in to see films, which was a bit surreal! Lots of the congregation were chatting, but no one spoke to me.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

Velveta spoke very fast, so I didn't catch everything she said. She encouraged us to stand for worship, so I didn't have time to write down her exact words. The first three words I did get: "Good morning church."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

No books were provided, although some of the congregation had brought Bibles with them, which is fairly typical for a Pentecostal church, in my experience. The songs were on PowerPoint.

What musical instruments were played?

Two keyboards, a guitar and two sets of drums, one played with drumsticks and the other with hands. There were about 12 people singing in the music group.

Did anything distract you?

A few things. I found the constant amens and hallelujahs a bit irritating – that sort of thing isn't my cup of tea. Also, the stewards were wearing badges with numbers on, and I couldn't help thinking of the The Prisoner, which I had watched the night before. Finally, it was a communion service and the bread, which was in a plate, looked like cornflakes! I presume it was matzos crumbled up. I had no idea how much to take. The notices were done by PowerPoint presentation and reminded me of the old cinema adverts for local restaurants from the 1970s.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Worship was very happy clappy, which I do enjoy. There were about four songs, only one of which I knew. There were times where the musicians were playing and people were encouraged to lift their praises to God.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

40 minutes, which wasn't as bad as it sounds.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

8 – Stephen Derbyshire didn't pull any punches. I don't think he was using any notes, which is pretty impressive for a 40 minute sermon. I must admit he did one thing that really irritated me. While searching for a verse he had just remembered, he asked the congregation to say amen, which they obligingly did. I hate this sort of thing, treating people like they are performing seals! I really thought that sort of thing only happened in comedy sketches. If I'd had a visitor with me, I would have been highly embarrassed.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The topic was about lying, or rather, not lying. It was based on a verse in Ephesians 4. No topical, cultural or political issues were mentioned, which was surprising, considering it was the Sunday before the UK's general election. He remarked that if you're not a member of a local church, you are not walking a life worthy of your calling, but he didn't explain why. As someone who falls into this category, I was quite put out by this.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

There was an amazing testimony given by a young couple who had been shot at while sitting in their car. One of the bullets had grazed the young man's neck, but they were unharmed apart from that. The suggestion was that it was a case of mistaken identity. Hearing how God had protected them brought tears to my eyes. The pastor and worship leader prayed that there wouldn't be any long-term emotional or psychological impact.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

A few things, unfortunately. There were no intercessions. Also I couldn't believe that there was no mention of anything happening in the outside world. If was as if everything that wasn't related to City Gates church was completely irrelevant.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

It was the same as before the service: no one spoke to me. I can't believe that out of 400 or so people, no one noticed a person obviously standing around looking lost. It was deeply ironic that a man wearing a badge marked "Befrienders Team" walked straight past me!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The coffee was nice and hot, but wasn't fair trade. Also, I asked for decaf but they didn't have any. On the plus side, there were lots of yummy chocolate biscuits and even some mini-muffins.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

5 — The fact that no one bothered to speak to me, either before or after the service, would alone be enough to put me off joining.

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

Yes, especially the incredible testimony.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

That no one spoke to me.

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