Mystery Worshipper: Leo
Church: Whiteladies Road Churches at the Boston Tea Party
Location: Bristol, England
Date of visit: Monday, 29 March 2010, 7:30pm
The event was held at the Boston Tea Party, a cafe chain based in Bristol with locations throughout the southwest of England. One cannot help but notice the array of large windows fronting the place.
This was an ecumenical event, arranged for the three free churches (Baptist, Methodist and United Reformed) on Whiteladies Road. The three free churches are at the more liberal end of the spectrum. Redland Park is a fairly thriving church whose activities include youth groups, children's activity days, a Developing Discipleship group and the usual uniformed organisations. It is also very third world focussed. They sponsor a World Development Group and run a stall selling fairly traded products. The other churches involved in this joint Holy Week programme offer a similar, busy round of activities.
Whiteladies Road gets its name from the nuns who lived there in the Middle Ages (though a long-established urban myth suggests that it was named after the posh ladies who lived there with their slaves, because the top of the road is known as Blackboy Hill). It is the main arterial road running through affluent Clifton. This part of the road is known as the Strip, after its wine bars and cocktail lounges where the wealthier university students hang out and make a lot of noise instead of writing their essays.
The Revd Douglas Burnett. David Fuller led the discussion group that I was in (there were others for different groups).
What was the name of the service?Café Church.
How full was the building?
Fairly full. I counted about 70 plus people.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No, but that isn't the way it is done. I lingered around outside to check that I had the right place. Upon seeing a gentleman in a clerical collar, I assumed that it was. So I queued to buy a cup of coffee and then went to find a table. I went around the entire place but most of the seats were taken except at a table downstairs.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was OK, as wooden chairs go, but most people were on very comfortable-looking sofas.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very noisy. Lots of people talking animatedly plus the sound of coffee shooshing in those machines.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
A musician sang "Now the green blade riseth." Then the Revd Burnett started to talk on the microphone. But he was inaudible above the crowd until people realised he was trying to get their attention. The first words that I heard were "moment of silence."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
Yes. There were two women talking behind me all the way through. Then again, they probably just came in for a coffee and found their space taken over by this meeting.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Informal café talk. A DVD of Rob Bell from Mars Hill Church was used as a sermon/discussion starter. David Fuller, my discussion group leader, had a very difficult task, as the group was too large and the time too short. When nobody expressed an opinion, he rushed in to tell us what he thought. Later he asked if we agreed with an idea when we had already said that we disagreed. However, he enabled everyone to have their say as the time drew to a close. He gently challenged a bad reaction from one group member toward another, and echoed someone's use of the word for solid bodily waste to describe how life can be sometimes. (I have always wanted to use that and similar words in church!) He also acknowledged that the creation stories are fairy tales to make us think. Too many teachers and preachers don't want to risk offending anybody by saying this.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – Although this score might seem a little mean, a preacher can only work with the material he has got – in this case an unhelpful DVD and some argumentative people. Toward the end, he echoed somebody's observation that the way we view life depends on whether we see our glass half full or half empty, and said that we could see ourselves as half failure or half successful, which is reflected in my half score above.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He led a discussion based on questions that were printed out as a menu, with starter, main and pudding. But we didn't get beyond the starter, which was: "Do we think the world is drenched in God?" This got responses such as: "It can't be if people are killing each other," "You certainly won't find God in today's churches," "Yoga is OK if that's your spiritual path," etc. Just before the end, a gay man said that he had felt unwelcome in charismatic churches – indeed that he had experienced downright hostility. I wish there had been more time to pursue this.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
A woman led a secular-ish meditation accompanied by the guitar. She asked up to imagine a garden where we could lay down all our burdens and eat delicious fruit. Although God was mentioned now and then, it was something that seekers and people of no faith could appreciate and was a good introduction to Ignatian spirituality.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There was only one laptop to view for three tables' worth of people, and we were told that we had to get really close to hear. However, there wasn't enough room for that so I found it difficult to follow. Also, Rob Bell on the DVD was throwing out far too many ideas. He was planting two trees while asking questions about: Where is God? What's the purpose of life? Is there life after death? Is this world just a waiting room for the next, where God promises a new heaven and a new earth? I was irritated when he wrongly called the last book in the Bible "Revelations."
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Several of us who had been sitting at my table continued our discussion.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Cheap and nasty – but that's my fault for being penny-pinching rather than buying a latte or a cappuccino.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – Unlike the people this church is trying to reach, I am more at home in "stale" expressions of church than "fresh." But I love a good theological argument and would probably enjoy the cut and thrust and challenge. I certainly welcome the mix of classical spirituality with an evangelicalism that isn't fundamentalist or plugging dodgy atonement teaching like penal substitution.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, especially that we come with different worship styles and that it is OK to take risks and do things differently.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
That evangelism doesn't have to be pushy or inerrantist.