They meet at several different locations; they call their principal location the Warehouse. It's just that – a converted warehouse, basically a large shed. Inside is surprisingly roomy, with good lighting and exposed brickwork and metal beams. At the back there are designs on display showing off their proposed new building project, which looks very swish indeed. Inside the front entrance there is a welcome desk, and also a well presented bookshelf with a variety of contemporary authors represented. Among these are Eugene Petersen, the American pastor and scholar, best known for his paraphrase of the Bible in contemporary language; NT Wright, the retired bishop of Durham and controversial Biblical scholar; and Rick Warren, the American evangelical minister and author of The Purpose Driven Life. (In Northern Ireland these authors would not go down well with many, but I like 'em all!) There was also a book entitled Scars and Stilettos by Harmony Dust, a former exotic dancer who, after dedicating herself to God, devoted her life to helping abused and dysfunctional people find healing and restoration.
Quoting from their website, Glenabbey claims to be "a spiritual family made up of people from a wide variety of backgrounds who are united by the fact that Jesus Christ has changed, and continues to change, our lives." They are "committed to working out what that means in our culture and context, then living accordingly." To this end, they sponsor a wide variety of spiritual and social activities all well described on their website.
Glengormley is a popular residential community about six miles north of Belfast. Actor Stephen Boyd, best known for his role in the film Ben-Hur, was born near Glengormley. Glenabbey's Warehouse is just outside the town, nestled among a residential housing estate. Kind of tucked away. No one is likely to find it unless they set out looking for it.
The service was led by a group of six young staff members whose names I didn't get. Gilbert Lennox, one of the church elders, was the preacher.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Service.
How full was the building?
About 300 or so chairs had been set out, and more were brought out later. The place was pretty well-packed, although there were three empty spaces beside me and I noticed several people standing at the back rather than sit down. It was predominantly a white suburbanite crowd. I started to feel I was the smelly guy no one wanted to sit beside on the bus!
Did anyone welcome you personally?
The car park attendant flashed me a very warm good morning. As I entered, a man (who turned out to be Gilbert Lennox, the preacher) said hello. Little did I know at the time that that was to be the limit of the conversation.
Was your pew comfortable?
The seats were standard-issue cushioned plastic. Not that comfy, but the backrests were flexible, which was good as I like to be able to lean back some.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quite noisy. An increasing number of people competed to be heard in conversation. The big screen at the front flashed lots of announcements. Among these were a notice to turn off mobile phones; an advert for their new website; an invitation to stay behind after for Starbucks coffee and/or Tazo tea; and the chance to buy Glenabbey pens for only £1.50 and binders (to keep sermon notes) for only £2.50.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning. Welcome." I couldn't hear any more than that because the people behind me were talking so loudly. As the music group started up, the young people at the back began to talk even more loudly and continued to do so through the first two songs.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
What musical instruments were played?
Keyboard, four guitars and a drum kit.
Did anything distract you?
Unfortunately, the building's acoustics seemed to amplify every cough and squeak. There was the constant sound of people fidgeting the whole time. Also at one point during the sermon, a message flashed up on the screen: "Deborah Montgomery to Live the Adventure please." I wondered just what adventure it was that Deborah was expected to live – I learned later that Live the Adventure is what they call their children's church. The message remained in my mind for quite a while after. The worst distraction, however, was when they did an informal interview with the outgoing and new youth workers. One of the chaps sat with his legs wide open the whole time. The position of the seating and elevation was exactly right (wrong, actually) in relation to the congregation. Very cringeworthy indeed!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was fairly bland, to be honest, although it was quite professionally done. The scheduled songs, in my opinion, were more suitable as performance pieces rather than for congregational singing. In any event, there didn't seem to be much feeling invested in them. A few times it almost took off but never quite got there.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Gilbert Lennox has an extensive repertoire of hand gestures, not all of which worked. I found myself in agreement with most of what he said, but I thought he laboured the point a bit and that his sermon could have been shorter.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The reading was Genesis 4, the story of Cain and Abel. It was basically about the wickedness of the human heart and how quickly things degenerated after Adam and Eve's fall. Lack of trust in God produces ruin for self and others. The remedy is found in a posture of faith and repentance. Many, however, like Cain, use religion as a cover, and so life becomes pointless. Come clean! Stop playing religious games with God!
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
No part of the service registered high enough on the scale. It was mostly lukewarm.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The interview with the two youth workers was a good idea but should have been more disciplined. The guys were given too much time to speak and really indulged themselves to the extent that it became quite boring. I'll bet money I'm not the only one who thought that. The young people behind me clearly concurred, as they started to talk again about halfway through.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There were more than 300 people in this small building so I was sure that someone would speak to me, but I was doomed to be disappointed. There was plenty of eye contact and lots of pushing past and banging elbows (very tightly packed), but not a word of greeting, even though I stationed myself in three separate places and allowed plenty of time at each. I stood in line for the coffee, I hung around near the door, I even stood beside the flipping welcome desk and leafed through the visitor's pack. But nothing was enough to draw anyone into conversation. I began to wonder if I really did smell after all!
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The coffee was fair-trade genuine Starbucks, real good! But they only half-filled the cup. This was wise, actually, as the crowd crush would definitely have resulted in spillage.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – This church struck me as a cosy middle-class club that would be great to be a part of, especially if you have kids. But unfortunately they don't seem to be looking for new members.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Overall it failed to stir me.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
That youth worker's crotch, dammit! It's gonna take a while to erase that image from my mind.