The building is fairly new, having been extensively redeveloped in 2007. The main auditorium is spacious and has a very pleasant feel to it. The decor is tasteful: blue carpet, red-cushioned chairs, cream-coloured walls and the stage area is mostly blue with a white background. Mounted on the white background wall is a stainless steel cross. The use of lighting is particularly good; there are strip lights sunk into the ceiling as well as surface-mounted spotlights. There is also a shaft of light behind the stage that comes from a cavity in the back wall. Along both sides of the room are floor-to-ceiling windows, which allow lots more light. It all works together wonderfully well. I was very encouraged to note that this church has eschewed the Baptist canon of placing a single vase of flowers near the front.
They have adopted five "Bs"' to sum up their mission: bridge, belong, build, body, beacon. It's all about reaching out to the community and shining forth.
Ballynahinch is a small market town far enough away from Belfast to be considered "in the country" and indeed the place was thick with strange accents. There are many Christians in this small town, however, as it boasts plenty of churches, most of which are very well subscribed. This one has a congregation almost 400 strong.
There was a very enthusiastic and energetic woman leading worship whose name I didn't get. A young woman called Rachel gave a report on her recent trip to Brazil and the sermon was delivered by a man named Andrew.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Evening Service.
How full was the building?
There were at least 400 seats downstairs and a balcony upstairs. However, tonight it was less than half full and everyone seemed to cluster together, making me feel a bit hemmed in.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, a pleasant elderly gentleman greeted me on the way in and again on the way out.
Was your pew comfortable?
The seats have metal frames with red cushions and were comfy enough but they were bolted together and many of the screws have not been trimmed adequately. I wouldn't be surprised if someone snags their trousers or scuffs their shoes from time to time.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
We were among the first to arrive as the band were finishing their practice. Very soon afterwards, people were flocking in and seemed to cluster around us, despite our sitting strategically near the back.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Well, good evening, everyone. You're so welcome." There followed a reading from Isaiah 60, something about "shining like stars," which was a preamble to the missions theme for the evening.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
What musical instruments were played?
Piano, played by a guy who looked a lot like the musician Moby. There were also a bass guitar, acoustic guitar and electric guitar, plus a drum kit. There were three vocalists in all.
Did anything distract you?
The opening song was fairly upbeat and the worship leader immediately began slapping the inside of her arm as she sang. Her arm quickly became very red. I worried a little about what would happen if she continued to slap it through every song, but she soon realised this was a bad idea. The bassist was very scruffy looking. I couldn't believe my eyes as he slouched on a comfortable seat on stage while playing through the musical items. At one point he was virtually horizontal. I found this infuriating and stared daggers at him, hoping he would somehow sense my anger. He didn't, though.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
All the songs were the contemporary clappy type that are generally hard to sing and most of which I didn't know. I am slowly growing to hate this kind of "worship" but there were a few good moments in there. This service was a communion celebration, and as the tokens were passed around, three congregants prayed aloud and another two read and reflected from the Bible.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 – Andrew had a very strange accent that I couldn't place at all; at times a South African twang came over, other times it sounded kind of American but I've never quite heard one like it. He was very casual for a Baptist, in jeans and a checked shirt. Many Northern Ireland Baptist churches would be scandalised at such attire.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
I never quite got the point; he was a bit all-over-the-place. One minute he was talking about working out your own salvation, the next he was talking about missionary work. It ended very abruptly too, though I wasn't about to complain.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
There was a nice moment when the music came to something of a climax. Someone in front had his hand raised so that I could see it silhouetted against the lyrics on the screen. It just hit me, you know, a real moment of clarity, like, yes, this is what it's all about just raising your hand and letting go and affirming that God is worthy of our worship and praise and adoration.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
It was a fairly close call between three moments: First, when after a full hour had passed the speaker mounted the platform and I realised we had a sermon still to come. Second, when the wine was passed around and it turned out to be Ribena, (ugh!). Third, when for the final set of songs they dimmed the lights and gave everyone glow-sticks and badgered us into waving them around like teenagers at a concert. It was only made worse when I got a green one and then saw other people with really nice blue ones. Why didn't I get a blue one!?
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Diddly squat. People drifted off to talk about their tractors and whatever else they do out here in the country. There were people right beside us who were only too happy to pull in their knees and feet to let us out, but no sign of a hello or even momentary eye-contact. I got the impression we could have hung around all night and not be noticed. Too bad.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
For such a progressive Baptist congregation in such a swish new building, and considering Northern Ireland's famous country hospitality, there is no excuse whatsoever for the total lack of tea and buns after this service. Shame on you, Ballynahinch Baptist! Get this sorted out!
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 – This church, like so many Baptist congregations nowadays, has no full-time minister so they rely on pulpit-supply. As long as this is the case, the ministry here will always be a mixed bag. Tonight was not one of the better experiences. Not likely to return, I'm afraid.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Some brief rays of light came shining through.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The glow-sticks. Never ever done that in a church before.