Mystery Worshipper: Miss Ericord
Church: Canterbury Vineyard Christian Fellowship
Location: Canterbury, Kent, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 22 August 2010, 10:30am
A unit at the back of an industrial estate. No, really. The church outgrew its original location in the city and moved to the warehouse in January 2010. The L-shaped space is cleverly used, centred on the worship band, which is surrounded by concentric rows of chairs from the corner of the L, with café-style tables and chairs and fabulous mismatched sofas around the outside. One end of the L is the entrance, the other houses the crèche. The inside is painted white with large, interesting portraits high up on the walls and a space left clear for the projected words of songs and scripture. There were spotlights and coloured lights on the band and several sets of flashing fairy lights on either side of the central area.
Canterbury Vineyard "markets" itself as "church for people who don't do church" and the emphasis is very much on "faith" rather than "religion": an informal gathering of people for worship and mutual prayer. There is information on the noticeboards about men's/women's groups, supporting a mission in Malawi, student ministries, etc. Their educational programmes range from Alpha to an in-house course entitled "Religion Sucks". Vineyard Churches started in California, and spread to the UK in 1987. According to its website, it is first and foremost a conservative evangelical movement, governed by a council through a number of task forces, which oversee existing churches and facilitate widespread church planting. There are more than 1,500 Vineyard churches worldwide, over 550 in the US and over 100 in the UK.
Wincheap Industrial Estate occupies the western edge of Canterbury. It houses the usual do-it-yourself and furniture superstores the Vineyard warehouse sits between a bed superstore, a tool hire counter and a gas storage cylinder. The nearest residential areas are the suburb of Thannington and the city of Canterbury itself, each about 10 minutes' dirty walk away across the industrial estate, although everyone I saw arriving came (sensibly, given the rain) by car.
The service was led by team leader Jim Denison, and the worship leader was referred to as Tim. Various members of the congregation stepped up at intervals to describe "pictures" they had received during the service.
What was the name of the service?The Morning Service.
How full was the building?
Mostly full, although there was so much moving around (and there's a lot of space) it didn't feel packed. There were around 120 people present, mostly youngish-to-middle-aged, lots of couples but few children. I saw only two grey heads.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
There was a group of people hovering inside the door, one of whom said hello as I stepped in, but I'm not sure whether he was on official welcome duty or just happened to be there! I spotted a coffee stand across the room so headed for it, was offered coffee, but not offered anything from the trays of doughnuts and muffins on the next table. Perhaps they were only for the regulars.
Was your pew comfortable?
I took a seat at one of the café tables behind the semicircles of chairs my chair was perfectly comfortable, and the table great for Bible, notebook, coffee cup, etc (and to hang on to while praying with eyes closed standing up I tend to wobble otherwise!). Brilliant idea. All the sofas looked like they were occupied by groups of students.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Loud. There was recorded music playing modern worship, although I didn't recognise it. Groups of people were milling around chatting.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"OK everyone, find yourself a seat, bring your coffee, we're going to make a start."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. Song words and scripture were projected onto the wall.
What musical instruments were played?
Electric keyboard, two guitars, and drums.
Did anything distract you?
The service started with around half an hour of worship time, after which Pastor Jim gave notices, then said: "OK, if you want to grab a coffee, catch up with some people, we'll be back in 10." I've never been to a service with an intermission before. I wasn't quite sure what to do with myself, didn't know anyone to catch up with (and certainly none who would have had more news to share since the start of the service) and didn't need any more coffee, so I sat and admired the paintings on the walls and wondered why the interruption.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Modern worship music (I knew only two of the eight songs sung), with much improvising of words and occasionally of tunes, so it was hard for a newbie to follow, and even more so as I couldn't get the melody from anywhere. Everything was amplified so I couldn't hear the congregation; the girl singer with a microphone was mostly singing harmonies, and I couldn't hear the keyboardist (who was presumably playing the tune) at all. So I generally made it up as I went along, which given the ethos of the place (Our one rule is: "BE YOURSELF"), I don't think anyone would have minded.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Pastor Jim was an engaging speaker. He read the passage of scripture, Luke 11:1-13 (Lord, teach us to pray), from a hand-held electronic something, which I'd never seen before.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Pastor Jim spoke first about a recent television programme featuring the outspoken humanist author and professed atheist Richard Dawkins, pointing out that trying to understand faith by the things you see and hear is like trying to measure temperature with a ruler. He then moved on to the main message, gearing up for a prayer focus for the next few weeks. He talked about prayer not being us asking God for things, but being a means of becoming familiar with our Father's will. He gave several analogies around prayer methods, emphasising that there is no "wrong" way to pray, just as there is no wrong way for a child to run to his father and throw his arms around his neck. About 30 minutes in, he acknowledged that he'd overrun and said that anyone who'd left their roast potatoes in the oven could leave.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The consideration that has obviously gone into the setup of this church. I loved the café tables and there was probably the best children's provision I've seen in a long time a well-stocked crèche and a large space behind the chairs for running around in. There was a very relaxed atmosphere and the impression that pretty much anyone would be welcome here.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I have a significant aversion to enforced public prayer. During prayers, Pastor Jim asked for anyone who felt a particular calling to prayer ministry to raise their hand, and then for anyone standing next to one of those people pray to with them. If I had been next to someone with hand upraised, I would not have felt comfortable with being ordered to pray with a stranger. It also meant that separate groups of people formed, leaving others looking a little lost. It felt excluding.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
This was tricky to do as the service didn't "end" as such Pastor Jim said that the band were going to carry on for a bit, and that we could stay or go as we pleased. I hung around (gazing about in an "I-don't-know-anybody" manner) until the majority of people had left the seating area and nothing happened, so I stayed a bit more, studied the noticeboards and welcome tables, contemplated swiping an unguarded tray of chocolate doughnuts, gave up, and left.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It was pre-service, during-service, and after-service. I had coffee in a syrofoam cup (very nice, from a percolator, quite strong). There was also tea and several flavours of fruit squash available. As well as the reserved doughnuts and muffins, of course.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – What they do is generally done well, although personally I prefer a little more structure to a service. The interval was odd, and I'd need to learn the songs in advance to be able to join in worship. It was a shame that, despite Pastor Jim's urging of new people to fill in a "Getting To Know Ya" card, the only person who actually spoke to me was the first guy by the door.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, in a slightly haphazard, anything-goes kind of way.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The interval what was that about??