Mystery Worshipper: Ken T. Poste
Church: Hope City
Location: Hackney, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 25 September 2016, 11:30am
The church currently meets in an art studio in Hackney. Since being set up, they have moved around a lot. They've met in a hotel room near Marble Arch, a couple of buildings near Old Street/Shoreditch, and have only been in Hackney for a few months. Their present location is down a narrow side road that almost no one would stumble across accidentally. As you enter the building, you enter a hallway with several closed doors off to the side, leaving one to guess that you're meant to walk ahead. Fortunately I found a small sandwich board that indicated I was on the right track. You come into a sort of crche area before going through into the main space, which is a multi-purpose room where the church had set up a multi-level stage with something resembling disco lighting. That was the only light in the room.
Hope City Church began in Sheffield in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster, a stampede that occurred in 1989 at a football stadium in which almost 100 people were killed and almost 800 injured. The idea is to bring hope to a city that had been left battered by tragedy. The church has since expanded internationally, with branches around England, Germany, Ghana and Malaysia. The call themselves "one church all over the place." The London congregation was marking its third birthday on the day I visited.
Hackney is, according to the church website, "the unofficial hipster underground, complete with arty vibes and a wicked buzz." Walking up the main road, one gets the impression that there is a large Turkish community in the area, judging by the number of Turkish restaurants and shisha/vaping shops. Hackney hasn't always enjoyed the most favourable of reputations, though in seeking to turn around its reputation for gangs and violence, it has been accused pejoratively of "gentrification" by some.
The service was led by Sats Solanki, lead pastor. The sermon was given by co-leader (and Sats' wife), Emma Solanki.
What was the name of the service?I don't think the service had a particular name, though there was a theme of "first fruits" going on and the term "Freshtember" was used on more than one occasion
How full was the building?
With about 30-35 people, the room was pretty full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Having arrived a bit early, I sat in a nearby park and ended up coming in via a back entrance, dodging the welcome team who were stood outside the building in their branded white t-shirts. Upon entering, I had my hand shaken by a couple of people, and one asked me to sit on one of the front two rows. One chap then came over to speak and told me a little about the church.
Was your pew comfortable?
We had individual plastic chairs. They were very moderate neither the epitome of comfort nor ascetically punishing.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was like a nightclub. It was dark and the music that was being pumped out of the PA system was incredibly loud. It was difficult to hear anyone speak. I soon realised that every seat was covered with some leaflets, booklets, envelopes, and a pen, but being so dark I had to turn on the torch on my phone in order to be able to read anything.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Morning, church. Let's give God all the praise."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
In spite of the leaflets on the chairs, we didn't use any of them. All songs (and a smattering of Bible verses) were projected onto the wall.
What musical instruments were played?
Electric guitar, semi-acoustic guitar, bass guitar and a set of drums. The band also had a couple of singers. Altogether, it was a very professional and well-rehearsed ensemble.
Did anything distract you?
The words that were projected on the wall didn't have a stationary background. They were projected on a series of films that varied from motorcycle rides through the city at night, firework displays, and an old man doing carpentry. They all looked very arty and professionally shot and edited, but I didn't understand the purpose of having them as the backdrop to the lyrics we were trying to sing. Sometimes the timing got a bit squiffy too, so what the band was singing wasn't what was on the screen.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Oh my! This was in at the deep end of the happy clappy scale. The music was loud and there were lots of fancy lighting effects that probably ought to have come with an epilepsy warning. The choruses were repeated quite often, though not quite ad nauseam. To my left, I heard one person start babbling in tongues. There was an interesting moment when the congregation were encouraged to move and shake hands. In an Anglican church, one would expect the refrain "Peace be with you" at this point, but here that was changed to "Have you got your praise on?" To mark the London congregation's third birthday, a cake was brought out at one point (with more than three candles on it) and a video message was sent to the parent church in Sheffield. Towards the end of the service, they introduced their "first fruits" giving. This was being taken up across all the congregations with the intention of raising 150,000 that was going to be given away as part of a project called "the Gate," which was going to fund various projects in Accra, Kuala Lumpur, and a few other locations. While they had an abundance in the style of the presentation, this was more than made up for by a lack of clarity as to how the money was to spent.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – It might sound a bit harsh, considering it was made clear that this was the first time Emma had preached in London. She was a good communicator and spoke well, but kept losing her place in the notes and going off on tangents about her husband's grandfather's time working in Buckingham Palace and something about her friend doing a triathlon while they were on holiday. And then there was the point about finance (see below).
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
When it wasn't veering off course, it was about "Our moment for movement." It was based very loosely on John 13:3-4 (Jesus prepares to wash the disciples' feet), in particular the phrase "so he got up from the meal." Jesus was stepping up to take action; likewise, if we decide to rise up and step out, then our decision to do so will lead to salvation in the world. There was then a statement about Nehemiah and how he was able to embrace the ordinary as his sacrifice, which made him part of bigger whole.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The musical worship was clearly impassioned and such enthusiasm is always good to see. The noise and the flashing lights are not to some tastes and even I struggled with it a bit, but I think I'd also struggle with the full glory of heavenly worship while this side of the resurrection, so it was a worship that spoke to something beyond what is currently seen or heard.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
For some, the sheer sensory overload of flashing lights and loud music would send them running. For me, though, what set me off was a line in the sermon when Emma said, "Your decision to give first fruits will lead to financial breakthrough in your life." She then expanded on this to say that by giving generously we would see positive outcomes in relationships, in our jobs, etc. It was a classic statement of prosperity gospel. At that point, I couldn't wait to head out and shake my coat. This was then further exacerbated when, in talking about the "first fruits" giving, Sats Solanki stated exactly how much he and Emma were giving (I shan't repeat the figure here). It seemed as though there'd been a gross misunderstanding of Jesus' instructions about not blowing one's own trumpet prior to giving. He also declared, very boldly, that they were going to raise 8,000 that day from the congregation gathered (see the congregation size above to calculate how much that was per head). Looking at the leaflet on my chair, the suggested amounts went from a minimum of 100, up to 2,000.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
It took a little while for anyone to approach me. I entered into a conversation with one of the congregation and I gathered a little more information about the church. One of the singers offered some rather nice gooey chocolate cake part way through our conversation.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I didn't get a chance to sample it. Having given what I had come prepared to give, I had nothing left in my wallet and was therefore unable to cough up the 1.50 that they were charging for a coffee.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – It's a real shame, as there was some great enthusiasm here, but the prospect of prosperity gospel turns me off. Sats said (in a rather tongue-in-cheek manner), whilst introducing the "first fruits," that if you were a guest or a visitor then you shouldn't feel pressured to give; instead we should take away the leaflet and then feel free never to come back again. I think I'll take him up on that offer.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
No. No matter how much joy and enthusiasm there is in a church, the sprinkling of prosperity gospel is like a nice sticky toffee pudding that comes with a drizzling of hemlock best avoided at all costs.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The idea that if you are going to be a part of this flock, you are going to be fleeced.