It looks like a shopping mall or conference centre set in a retail park. In the foyer you could be in a modern hotel, but there's no bar, restaurant (yet) or bedrooms, and you don't have to book in. Entering the auditorium is like going into a concert hall or theatre. Even the toilets are splendid, with flower arrangements. It's new, handsomely appointed, and very well designed and built.
It's big! The congregation come from a wide area but have community projects in Peterborough. They let out their facilities for conference, business and training events. There are several small social, spiritual and recovery support group meetings held throughout the week. Of special note is "Cleansing Stream," a program that helps people deal with (quoting from their website) an "unhelpful legacy" of past hurts or wrongs in order to "clear the way for progress on the road to spiritual maturity." They also offer groups for children, youth and young adults. There are two services each Sunday.
Peterborough is a city about 75 miles north of London, mid-way between the East Anglian coast and the Midlands. There is evidence that the area was inhabited as far back as the Bronze Age. The coming of the railways in the 19th century brought rapid industrial growth, especially in brickmaking. Although in modern times manufacturing has fallen off here as in much of elsewhere, a strong regeneration effort has been underway for some time. Local notables include Sir Henry Royce, first Baronet of Seaton and co-founder of Rolls-Royce. The church is located on the edge of Peterborough in an industrial park.
Dave Smith, pastor, and Simon Deeks, head of pastoral care.
What was the name of the service?Service 1 (the earlier of the two Sunday services).
How full was the building?
About 20 per cent at kick-off, increasing to about 75 per cent after 10 or 15 minutes. The auditorium seats 1,200.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
They certainly did! As we drove up, a car parking attendant smiled at us and at least six others guided us in. Someone standing at the entrance shook our hands (no concern for swine flu here apparently – perhaps healing prayers cover that possibility). Once inside, we were handed A5-sized notes sheets.
Was your pew comfortable?
Upholstered banquet chairs. They were OK. No kneelers, pew rails or places to put books (no surprises there).
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A bit like being in a cinema. Expectant. Lots of people with badges and team t-shirts. There was piped pop/rock music, and in the last five minutes a countdown on the screen to the start of the service. The band got in position and the live music started up on time without further introduction.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning!" The main speaker, Dave Smith, continued with: "Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking..." which was a joke as he'd been away for two months.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. Songs were projected onto a screen, as were Bible verses from the New International Version. No Bibles were provided, though I daresay you could buy one in the bookshop before the service.
What musical instruments were played?
Keyboards, acoustic and electric lead guitars, bass guitar, drums, and five vocalists.
Did anything distract you?
Nothing serious – some stewards in the aisle could easily be heard talking sometimes, and a young child and his older brother in the row in front played happily for awhile. There was smoke from a smoke machine wafting around, and the lighting was rather fancy.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Definitely happy clappy and slightly reminiscent of Afro-Caribbean worship, with a bit of call and response going on. Lots of applause and hands in the air but no speaking in tongues. Reverent, sincere, enthusiastic, participatory. After 20 minutes of singing, we were invited to say hello to the people next to us. And so we did, but there was no moving about to greet those seated elsewhere. Later in the service, the leader invited anyone who was visiting the church for the first time to raise their hands so a steward could give them a welcome pack; there was some applause. In fact, there was lots of applause in the service, and it gave one a warm feeling to have this recognition.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The speaker was tracked efficiently by camera (he walked about a lot). His image was projected onto the screen, combined effectively with Bible verses and bullet points. He had a calm, relaxed manner. Not jokey. He was well dressed in jacket but no tie – smart casual. His only mannerism, apart from walking about a lot, was preceding many statements with: "How many of you know that..." I soon realised this wasn't a question, but was similar to Jesus saying: "Truly I tell you..." or "Verily I say unto you..." I didn't find it irritating, though.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was the first in a series, "Risks and Rewards – Living under an Open Heaven," about giving. His text was Matthew 6:1-4 (don't make a show of charity; God sees you and will reward you). The sheet we were given had blanks to fill in, at least I think that was the idea. I suppose that's a teaching method that reinforces the message. I did it anyway, if for no other reason than to have some notes to take away.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The welcome we received. From the moment we arrived until our last goodbye wave, it was amazing! The worship was not bad either. I found some of the elements a bit strange, like some form of impromptu liturgy, but I'm sure there will be many things in heaven that will seem strange and awkward at first.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
During many of the prayers there was keyboard and/or guitar accompaniment. I find this irritating. What's wrong with silence? Are we afraid of it?
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
At the end of the service, the leader invited those there for the first time to go to the welcome area for a drink. We got ready to look lost but didn't have a chance! In the welcome area there were a dozen or so café tables all marked "reserved." A very pleasant young lady named Mary brought us each a drink, gave us her personal attention for some time, and invited us to fill in a card with our details, following which she would send us an invitation to join a small group if we lived in the area. She also showed us around the building. As we left, she offered to pray for us. A steward waiting at the building entrance to welcome latecomers to the second service waved us good-bye. We left elated, encouraged that even in a large church it is possible to give a personal welcome and make newcomers feel at home if the team responsible are well organised, committed, well trained, and supported from the top.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I had coffee, my wife had hot water, in paper cups. The coffee was fine (I think the water was OK too). A special feature for their 21st anniversary was an abundance of small cakes arranged on a stand in the foyer. Nice.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – If we lived near Peterborough without previous church connections we'd definitely try going there just because of the amazing welcome we received.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes – indeed, proud!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The welcome from Mary – wow! Or the chap who waved to us when we drove away from the car park.