The church moved into its current building 1994; a new welcome area was completed in 2010. Sat on the corner of a small crossroads, its strikingly modern and blends in well in the residential neighbourhood. One enters through an automatic door into a foyer that feels quite light and airy, no doubt helped by the fact that I visited on a sunny spring day. The main auditorium had four columns of chairs leading down to a low rise platform on which the worship band was stood, as was the lectern from which the senior pastor preached. Either side of the platform were two tables, upon which were the bread and wine for communion. Behind these tables were a few flags.
They began life in 1978 as Penge Family Church, formed from a small group who wanted more from their Christian lives than they were getting in their existing churches. They began with neither resources, nor a pastor, nor any money. For their first couple of decades they were fairly nomadic, moving from place to place, including people's front rooms and a local primary school. Throughout the service there were hints dropped that the church had undergone something of a tumultuous change in the previous year possibly something more than merely an interregnum. Though as hardly anyone spoke to me, I couldn't get full details. According to the notice sheet, there was something going on every day of the week, whether that be a baby and toddler group, football training, zumba class, or a crochet and knitting group. They appear to have a well structured Sunday school, with different groups for various age sets from crêche up to 15 (school year 10).
Penge is a fairly unremarkable residential area of south London. The high street is full of budget stores, takeaways and a few pubs, while the quiet backstreets are full of terraced houses. On the west side of the area lies Crystal Palace park, which drew a large number of people on the sunny spring day I visited. It is particularly noticeable for the transmitting station located there, which is the fifth tallest structure in London, as well as the National Sports Centre, which has over the years hosted athletics, football, cricket, basketball, American football and motor racing.
The name of the worship leader wasn't given, nor was the name of the chap who gave the notices. The sermon was given by the senior pastor, Richie Powell.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Service.
How full was the building?
Every row was at least half-filled, some more so. Overall, I estimate there were about 150 people present. When the children went out, along with those involved in the children's work, the population of the auditorium dropped by about a third.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
As I came in I was handed a leaflet, though the person handing them out did so rather automatically, as she was engaged in conversation at the time. As I stood in the foyer reading the leaflet, I was approached by Richie, who asked if he'd seen me here before, whereupon I explained that I was visiting. Someone else soon grabbed his attention and I took my seat. No one else spoke to me before the service. The service sheet stated on it: "The Connect team would love to answer any questions you have about the church..." though who the Connect team are remains a mystery.
Was your pew comfortable?
There were no pews in this church. We had chairs that were well padded, though from a quick look around, many of them could do with a bit of a clean.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Given that it was the day after the clocks had gone forward, it was surprisingly busy. I think everyone turned up on time. Friends greeted each other, with the volume slowly increasing in the minutes running up to the start of the service.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, everyone. Well done. Now we know who has smartphones or at least remembered to put the clocks forward last night."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There were no books provided. The words to the songs were projected on a single screen at the front of the church. It was noticeable that when the worship leader changed the order of the verses, the person in charge of the projector was efficient at catching up.
What musical instruments were played?
The worship leader played an acoustic guitar. He was backed up by a keyboard, two electric guitars, a bass guitar, and drums. The drum kit was kept behind a see-through screen.
Did anything distract you?
A few phones went off during the sermon. At the points when I was bored, I was looking at the flags behind the communion table, trying to work out which countries they represented. There was a moment of some mirth in the middle of the sermon when the pastor alluded to an Old Testament book of the Bible that was apparently written by "Jeremy" instead of Jeremiah.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was certainly leaning towards the happy clappy side, though there wasn't all that much clapping. The worship was very much based around a string of modern choruses, sung with great enthusiasm by the congregation. One or two the worship songs came with guitar solos, which this worshipper found a bit indulgent and unnecessary. On a couple of occasions, people could be heard praying aloud in tongues, though no interpretation was ever offered or asked for. At one point, one of the congregation members came forward to read a scripture that she said the Lord had put on her heart; it turned out to be quite a long passage that took nearly five minutes to read. As it was Mothers Day, they gave out a small gift (I think it was a handmade basket of chocolate) to all the mothers in the church.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Richie admitted from the start that, for unspecified reasons, he had not had time to prepare fully and that the sermon had therefore only been written the day before. Despite that, he spoke without notes, opting only to hold a glass of water in his hand for most of the time. Richie is a very confident and capable speaker with a very down-to-earth approach, an impression that was aided by a faint Estuary English accent.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It appeared to come with two titles: "Challenge of Change" and "Church: Stick With God." It was loosely based on 2 Chronicles 16 (the consequences of King Asa's abandoning the Lord). It was mostly about facing adversity and remaining faithful, though it was bit scatty, with the feeling that the key message had been wedged into the passage rather than being exegeted out of it. The sermon was littered with little catchphrases such as "We need to stop reminding God of our problems and instead remind our problems of God" and"The country belongs to the Lord; if you don't believe, you don't belong." The end of the sermon became something of an advert for the Easter season, where they plan to get on the front foot of evangelism by preaching the gospel for six Sundays on the bounce, aided by a guide called "40 Days With Jesus" written by someone in a church in Northampton.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I couldn't pin it down to one thing, but it was good to see a church that was so full and see everyone so engaged. Though I couldn't put my finger on what had happened the previous year, it was clear that the whole church either had emerged, or was in the latter stages of emerging, from a tough period. This was clearly a significant and formative experience that gave them a new sense of unity and purpose.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The communion was a bit chaotic and I didn't get a clear idea of how they do things here. It was announced that the person "on the end of the row" should go up to get bread and wine to share with others in the row. But it wasn't clear which end of the row, and if two seats were separated by an aisle whether they were considered part of the same row or not. For a while I thought I was going to be overlooked. Eventually, I was handed a plate with bread on it and a glass of wine (a reasonable Shiraz), but the whole thing felt rather disordered. Instead of the whole church sharing communion together, it was shared in multiple small pockets of people. I ate and drank alone.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
One person came up to me to shake my hand and introduce themselves, but they didn't stop to talk. Other than that, I was ignored; people were far too busy being friendly with those they knew.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
After a short queue for the drinks, I was served with a decent cup of coffee. It was a little on the hot side and served in a paper cup, but the accompaniment of biscuits and cupcakes went down a treat. Very usefully, the milk and sugar were on a separate table, encouraging people to move around and facilitating speeding up of the serving of drinks. Alongside the treats, the leftover communion bread was available for anyone who wanted it, though there was no sign of the leftover wine.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – It's clearly a church that has ambitions for evangelism and growth, as well as friendliness towards one another. However, their plans for growth will likely be stymied if that friendliness is not extended to strangers.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
So-so. If this was a church that had a curate, I'd have likened it to one of his eggs (good in some parts, bad in others).
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
One point in the sermon struck me. It was an almost off-the-cuff remark about people holding up Moses' arms when he was too tired to lift them himself. The precise comment was, "If you're not able to stand, we will hold you up that's what church is." I found that a lovely description of mutual support that all churches should seek to exemplify.