Mystery Worshipper: Beggarman
Church: Hillsong Oxford
Date of visit: Sunday, 24 July 2022, 11:00am
The church meets in a commercial cinema, the Odeon in Magdalen Street, which is on the opposite side of the street – literally and metaphorically – from the medieval parish church. Even on a Sunday morning, this is an easy building to miss if your’re looking for a worship venue. The church’s overspill activities are in communal areas rented in the nearby Randolph Hotel. Once inside, it feels like you’re in a bubble, which could be anywhere at all on Planet Earth, or any other planet come to that.
The church is part of the Hillsong network which started life as a youth-friendly Pentecostal megachurch in Sydney, Australia. There are now Hillsong churches in 30 countries around the world, including 12 in the UK. 2022 has been a difficult year for Hillsong, with the church's founder, Brian Houston, resigning after an internal investigation found he had engaged in inappropriate conduct with two women. The average age of the Oxford congregation is considerably younger than, say, the parish church over the road. Their ambition is to build a megachurch, and they say they will shortly be on the move to a different neighbourhood (see the sermon below).
Inspector-Morse country (the nearby Randolph Hotel featured in the TV series) meets commercial district of Oxford city centre. This is town rather than gown, despite the handsome photograph of ancient university buildings featured on the church’s website.
The Location Pastor did almost everything: leading, preaching, fronting the band, putting questions to the baptism candidates, relaying answers into the microphone, etc. The band led worship time and provided ambient background sound to various voice-overs. The introduction to the service was given by the female lead singer; prayers and meditation by a member of the congregation; likewise the ‘encouragement’ during the time of giving. Dunking baptism candidates in the water was, for safety reasons, done by a couple of burly guys drawn from the ranks.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Service.
How full was the building?
Well attended, but by no means full to capacity, probably on account of the school summer holidays.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. it was analagous to turning up to the cinema to watch a film: friendly enough, but anonymous. I did get a warm handshake and a ‘welcome to church’ from the person next to me at the peace, which was time-limited to one minute.
Was your pew comfortable?
We sat in top-quality, black, squishy cinema seats, which were generously sized, courtesy of Euro Seating. They are from the range confusingly called King Ruby, if I’m not mistaken, and designed for ‘extreme comfort and style’. A pity we spent so much of the time standing up! The popcorn-holder was preloaded with a leaflet about the church, plus a large black collection envelope, though most church members give online.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Buzzing in the foyer, where one had to navigate one’s way round families with small, excited children. Inside, the congregation was not devotionally quiet, just quiet – I’ve seen more animated cinema audiences. The worship space didn’t come to life until the band struck up.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Good morning, church!’ (with almost the same intonation as ‘Good morning, campers!’)
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. The song lyrics appeared on screen, low down where the intervening heads of people in the rows ahead made it hard to read. A screen layout unchanged after online streaming?
What musical instruments were played?
Electronic. From where I was, I could see a keyboard player on one side of the stage, and a drummer on the other side.
Did anything distract you?
Some of the visuals during worship. They included little lines, similar to the ones opticians show patients to check for astigmatism, replicated over and over across that wide screen; then triangles reminiscent of Toblerone landscapes; and finally a dark background with a Ring of Power. Or was it meant to reference 2001: A Space Odyssey? No, hold on, it shape-shifted again, and now looked like laundry and suds viewed through the glass of a washing machine. This worshipper wasn’t doing very well, trying to focus on the words of the songs.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Loud and contemporary. There wasn’t a lot of liturgy, with the exception of the baptisms, by full immersion, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. There wasn’t much focus on scripture either. There was no formal reading of a Bible passage, just nuggets coated in sermon.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Which one? The chap who was meant to be preaching went on for 27 minutes. We also got a couple of mini-sermons, clocking in at 5 and 3 mins respectively, courtesy of members of the congregation who were supposed (I thought) to be leading us in prayer.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 — Slick, with a rapid-fire delivery, but for some reason he didn’t use the resource of the screen to remind us of his bullet points, although he did show us relevant photographs. His testimony-style approach spoke eloquently of his personal engagement with the Word as revealed in scripture.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon revealed, and sold, the church’s planned move to new premises at the beginning of September at an out-of-town multiplex. This was presented as an object lesson in discerning and trusting God’s will, expressed through prophecy. Three things help with uncertainty in choosing a course of action: What has God said (in the Bible)? What is God saying now? And what is God showing you? He also talked about the practical grounds for the move: ‘New at the Vue’ offers more space for half the price, and the biggest car park in Oxford. The ideology seemed to be not so much prosperity Gospel as ‘prophecy of prosperity’, complete with an exhortation to ‘think like kings and queens’. BTW, did Jesus really fulfil 3,000 Old Testament prophecies?
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The first few minutes, when the people around me burst into life, praising our beautiful Lord, as the band swung into action.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The long grind, the heat, the relentless ear-bashing: 1½ hours of it.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
People smiled at me and said, ‘Goodbye!’
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Everyone headed straight for the exits, just as you would after watching a film. Drinks were available before the service, from Costa Coffee.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
0 — I wouldn’t be able to just drop in once the church has moved to a place you can only get to if you have wheels.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It’s hard to feel glad about anything when you feel like you’ve being run over (and over and over) by a JCB.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
I hope I don’t! If anything lingers in the mind it’ll probably be the weird visuals – the fiery ring, and my expecting the lidless eye of Sauron to appear in the centre any moment.