Mystery Worshipper: Addie Stephidelis
Church: Ventnor Baptist
Location: Ventnor, Isle of Wight
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 December 2011, 10:30am
A typical 19th-century non-conformist building, fairly unobtrusive, half-hearted Gothic from the outside, and much what one might expect on the inside as well. The walls are painted white, though some wood panelling remains at the entrance end. There is also a gallery, which looked as if it was used for storage. A display at the back of the church explains that this is due to be taken out as part of some alterations.
Ventnor Baptist Church is a member of Ventnor Churches Together, and seems to have various overseas links. Compared with the stereotypical demographic of the Isle of Wight (white and aging) the congregation were unusually diverse.
Ventnor is the southernmost town on the Isle of Wight, and shares the slightly-behind-the-times atmosphere, and the poverty and unemployment, of the rest of the island. A popular holiday destination in the 19th century, it has been sliding gently into obscurity, though in the summer it remains a successful seaside resort. The town rises from the seafront in a series of steps like a terraced hillside. This, combined with the mild climate, gives it a Mediterranean feeling.
The service was led by the minister, the Revd Nigel Cox. Other people, identified only by first name (Phil, Peter, Karen, etc.) also took charge of various parts of the service.
What was the name of the service?Morning Service.
How full was the building?
There were about 60 seats; probably three-quarters of them were occupied.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was greeted at the door as I came in: "Blown in out of the wind!" When I had sat down several people came over to talk to me.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a comfortable padded stacking chair in an inoffensive shade of pink. A small ring-shaped bracket had been attached to hold communion cups. Hanging around after the service, I noticed a complex set of guidelines explaining which chairs could be stacked on which other chairs – it all looked very confusing!
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Friendly and chatty. Everybody was wandering around talking to each other, and several people came over to talk to me, asking if I was a visitor, and so on. The service was a little late in starting; the lady next to me said that this was because the preacher had left his notes at home in Sandown and his wife had driven back to fetch them.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Morning, everyone." We responded, and then the story of Jesus walking on the water was read.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None – but there was a stack of Bibles (New International Version) at the back of church for the congregation to pick up and use if they felt so moved. All the words of the hymns and songs, and the text of the Bible reading, were shown on a projector screen.
What musical instruments were played?
There was a small band made up of keyboard, guitar, drumkit, and two vocalists, and hand-held percussion instruments (maracas, sleigh bells etc.) were distributed around the congregation.
Did anything distract you?
The lady on my right had a small black and white dog who, while on the whole very well behaved, did fidget a bit and occasionally came and licked my hand. There was also a banner at the front of the church showing the nativity scene, with the wording "Emmanuel – God with us." Unfortunately the W had dropped off, and I kept finding that my eyes were drawn back to the gap.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Happy clappy turned up to eleven. The service seemed to follow a predictable format in that, while I didn't know what was coming next, everyone else seemed to. It began with a short mime presented by two children, showing the difficulty of "running the race" from start to finish without Jesus' help. Then there was a block of songs that flowed into to a session of prayer, then to more songs. It finished with the sermon. There was plenty of congregational involvement – raised arms, flag-waving, and dancing in the songs, and murmurs of affirmation and "Yes, Jesus!" in the spoken parts. Intercessory prayer was invited from all the congregation, and many obliged, bouncing off each other's prayers to raise their concerns. All in all, a joyful and lively service.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
32 minutes, though this did incorporate the gospel reading (the birth of John the Baptist).
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The preacher had a very animated style, with plenty of variation in volume and tone. I didn't entirely agree with everything he said, but he kept my attention through the whole half hour, which isn't bad going.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
God is in control. He doesn't do spontaneous. The miraculous birth of John the Baptist is part of a series of events stretching all the way back through the Old Testament and history itself, which ulminates in the birth of Jesus.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
In a gap between two scheduled songs, somebody started singing, and several other people joined in. It was the most beautiful thing I heard today. Sadly, I didn't know the song, or I'd have joined in too, but that one spontaneous outburst of worship stands out among many as, well, heavenly.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There were a couple of references, in both the prayers and the sermon, to equality law and employment law as a tool used to persecute Christians in this country. That made this bisexual Christian very uncomfortable.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The little dog came and sat in my lap! When she had climbed out again, and I had got up to find a coffee, the minister came and spoke to me: "Are you a visitor? Where are you from? How long are you down for?" – and so did a couple of other people.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee in a cardboard takeaway-style cup. Tasted OK, though I didn't see the jar. There were also custard creams, mince pies, and Christmas shortbread being handed around.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – Not really my style, but I did find this a very welcoming congregation.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
On the whole, yes, though I would hesitate to align myself with the viewpoint that claims that Christianity in the UK is persecuted; I find it embarrassing and inaccurate.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The friendly little black dog.