Situated just off the main road, the church has an appearance quite typical of non-conformist churches of the early 20th century. You head up a few steps (no wheelchair ramp in sight) and into a foyer, which hosts a small bookshop. The main hall seems taller than it is deep, with just six wide rows of chairs. The pale green walls reminded me somewhat of a dentist's surgery. Being that it was a hot summer's day, the doors were kept open, meaning it was very well ventilated, for which very grateful.
They have been around since 1892. A fuller history of the church can be found on their website. From what I could gather, the church runs a Bible school, has monthly prayer meetings, and invests a lot in their youth who comprise a fair proportion of the congregation. On the weekend I visited, they had been camping in the church building and apparently enjoying "louder worship music than we normally have on a Sunday morning."
Situated in south London, West Norwood is best described as "quietly bustling." The main high street has something of the multicultural feel of nearby Brixton, but is slightly more toned down. Off the main road there are a lot of nice, quiet, residential streets. Just over the road from the church is West Norwood Cemetery, whose most notable inhabitant (at least for Shipmates) is one Charles Haddon Spurgeon, one of the most influential preachers of the 19th century. I was also informed that the area became famous for being the scene of the UK's first ever ram-raid (burglary committed by driving a motor vehicle through the windows or doors of a closed shop) on a branch of the Abbey National Bank.
The whole service was led by the pastor, Peter Day, who gave the introduction, the notices, the prayers, the sermon, and also led the singing.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Morning Service.
How full was the building?
A little over half full, with 60-70 people present.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A steward on the door greeted me with a warm handshake. The pastor also came over to say hello, as did one or two members of the congregation.
Was your pew comfortable?
Pew? In an evangelical free church? You must be joking! Individual chairs here: purple and with just the right amount of padding.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was fairly quiet. People filtered in gradually. One woman went around watering the plants whilst another chap (dressed in a sky blue suit with socks and sandals!) was taking photos. When I first saw him outside snapping the exterior of the building, I wondered if he might be another Mystery Worshipper, though it seems not.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome to Lansdowne."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Everything was on the screen. There were some church Bibles available for people to use. The church uses the New King James Version. For the older members of the church, the songs were on large print sheets.
What musical instruments were played?
We had keyboard, an acoustic guitar and drums in every song. Some songs also employed a bass guitar and/or a tambourine.
Did anything distract you?
The church was festooned with flags. The trouble with this is that flags have political connotations. Two things jumped out at me: (1) There was an Israeli flag but no Palestinian flag, and (2) the Welsh flag was half the size of all the others; why this was, I have no idea.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Given the instrument listing above, one might expect it to be very happy clappy. And so it was (I spotted a copy of Songs of Fellowship on the music stands). Yet the whole worship was rather muted. Peter tried to get everyone clapping, but in so doing he was rather on his own.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – I got the impression that Peter Day could have been an accountant. He had the demeanour of someone who was not the most naturally charismatic of personalities and was trying a bit too hard to be enthusiastic. After the service I found out he was indeed an accountant before going into the ministry. He was a little difficult to understand, as a lot of his r's sounded more like w's, i.e. "praise" became "pwaise".
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Based on Romans 1:8-19 (live in the Spirit, not the flesh), this was an exposition of the gospel according to a particular interpretation of Paul. We are all in need of rescuing and none can save ourselves. According to the sermon, salvation means that we will be clothed in the righteousness of God and will go on to live in heaven after we die. It closed with a challenge to accept Christ, if you haven't done so already.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The friendliness and welcoming attitude of the people was especially heavenly. One person commented that even though they'd never met me before, it was like having a brother come to visit. I would echo that sentiment in return.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The service included the dedication of two children, which would normally be a "heaven" item, but the pastor only asked questions of the parents (and in one case a grandparent as well) and, unusually for a dedication service, there was no request of the congregation to support the family. The fact that this was lacking was a bit of a disappointment for a dedication service.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was no time for this. I soon had a couple of people come over and say hello to me and ask what brought me there. I got the impression they didn't have very many visitors drop in on the off chance. I got drawn into a very genial conversation with one of the congregation about how the south London churches relate to one another, noting in particular the lasting influence of Spurgeon in creating some churches that are quite separationist.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Pretty good. They were served in thin plastic cups but these were placed within thicker plastic holders with handles so you didn't burn your hand. It was at a very drinkable temperature and served with some very nice cakes.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – If it was for the welcome and friendliness, it would be a 10. But the theology seemed very Calvinist and I think I'd find myself shaking my head a fair bit during the sermons.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Apart from the content of the sermon, yes.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
During the sermon, in reference to the current war in Iraq, Peter uttered the line: "God said love your enemies, not blow them up."