Mystery Worshipper: Party Girl
Church: Ilford High Road Baptist
Location: Ilford, Essex, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 24 January 2010, 11:30am
It is a large, red brick building on a busy main road with a steeple and lots of other buildings at the back. They always have interesting and witty posters outside, often playing on current adverts. Unfortunately, on the day of my visit toward the end of January, they still had a Christmas poster up. I must confess it's a pet hate of mine when posters, etc. are out of date. Inside it's a fairly typical Baptist church, with pews, galleries upstairs, and a baptistery at the front. There were several banners hanging up with Bible verses on them.
Very multi-cultural. There was a map in the entrance showing all the countries represented in the congregation (about 40). They are obviously very involved in the community and run all sorts of activities, including English classes, etc. I was told by someone that they have various team members who reach out to specific communities.
Ilford has a telephone area code of 020, suggesting it is in London, but the address is Ilford, Essex, which suggests it is in Essex. A hamlet has existed here since Saxon times; there is mention of "Ilefort" in the Domesday Book. Today's Ilford is hardly a hamlet – it boasts a population of about 41,000. Ilford Imaging, a huge multinational photographic company, had its beginnings here; their photographic films are still offered for sale in places like Boots for those with old-fashioned film cameras. Famous sons and daughters include the rock group Iron Maiden and the actress Maggie Smith. Ilford High Road Baptist Church is within a stone's throw of three other places of worship: high Anglican, Roman Catholic and Pentecostal. If you lived near here, youd be spoilt for choice! There is also a police station just along the road – which hopefully doesnt have to visit the churches very often! An underground tunnel links the police station with the magistrate's court.
The worship leader was Deacon Jide Morekinyo and the intercessions were led by Maria Martelly, pastoral assistant. The preacher was the Revd Barry Cheesman, who has been the pastor there for 17 years.
What was the name of the service?Worship
How full was the building?
When the service started, the pews downstairs were about two-thirds full (nobody appeared to be sitting in the galleries upstairs). By the time the service ended, downstairs was virtually full. I was told by the person sitting next to me that there were always lots of latecomers! One of the intercessions seemed to be directed at these tardy folk – see below.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was welcomed by four people – pretty impressive! The first one was the man who said "Welcome" as he opened the glass entrance door. The second was the lady inside the church who handed me the weekly newsletter (I think she said hello – she definitely said something to me!) Then, once Id sat down in an empty pew, the pastors wife (though I didnt know thats who she was at the time) came and sat next to me. She asked me if I was a visitor and then we chatted for a while, mostly about the church. After she left, the pastor came over and introduced himself. He also asked if I was a visitor.
Was your pew comfortable?
I must admit when I saw the wooden pew my heart sank, but in fact it was perfectly comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There were quite a few people in the church, some of whom I presume had been to the earlier service and were finishing up their tea and coffee. There was quite a relaxed atmosphere. The worship group started playing just before the service started.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Morning, church!" to which most people replied, "Morning!"
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The only book I could see was the Good News Bible in the back of the pews. The songs were all on either the overhead screen or two TV screens screwed to pillars. The newsletter, an A4 sheet, folded in half, had lots of space inside to write sermon notes. It even had the title of the sermon (they are following a series in Hebrews), the details of the reading and the headings of the topics. Other churches please take note! This is a great idea.
What musical instruments were played?
I couldnt easily see the worship group, who I had been told were the youth group, from where I was sitting. Apparently they have four worship groups so it would be interesting to see how they compare with one another. But I could hear a keyboard, guitar, bass guitar and drums. There were also about four or five singers and somebody in the congregation was playing a tambourine (fortunately in time with the worship group!).
Did anything distract you?
A mobile phone went off during the sermon and, instead of switching his phone off, the boy whose phone it was walked out of the church, having a conversation en route! The pastor was distinctly unimpressed and said, "We have rules about mobile phones!" (Whoops!) Sitting in front of me was a lady who appeared to be talking all the way through the sermon (admittedly in a very low voice). I was a bit taken aback until I realised that she was translating for the lady sitting next to her. The toilets were at the front of the church, so a few people went back and forth during the service, which was a bit distracting. Finally, there were quite a few "Amens" during the worship time, which I wasnt expecting. Very Pentecostal for Baptists! I was quite surprised that no one said, "Preach it, brother!" during the sermon.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Definitely happy clappy. Lots of clapping and hands raised. The service started with about four or five worship songs, all modern. There was a song during the collection and then two songs at the end of the service. I did have to smile to myself when the worship leader encouraged people to dance and then the next song was one that I imagine it would be very difficult to dance to ("Over the Mountains and the Sea"). No communion today – only on the third Sunday of the month.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Pastor Cheesman was very clear and stuck to the topic. However, I did find it a bit repetitive (but that may have been because he didnt say anything that I hadnt heard or read before – hope that doesnt sound too arrogant!). As I was busy writing notes, I couldnt see if he was using notes or not.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was based on Hebrews 1 (God speaks through Christ, who is superior to the angels) and was all about angels. Basically it was about their status in relation to Jesus and to human beings and the service they provide in carrying out God's will and supporting humans. God sends angels in response to prayer. We were encouraged to take a balanced view of angels, neither overemphasising their importance or neglecting them.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The warm welcome, the worship – and something that was said during the extemporary intercessions: "God is never late, he is always on time."
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Ironically, it was references to "the other place" (or activities of its inhabitants) in the sermon. The pastor warned people about using angels as spirit guides. Much of the lore about angels is unhealthy, e.g. seeing them as clairvoyants. It wasnt that I disagreed with what he said, but it did get hammered home a bit too much. Also, there were other references in the service to demonic activity, the need to be set free, etc. I thought it could be very off-putting and possibly frightening for some people, especially if you werent a Christian or had recently become one.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The lady I had been sitting next to disappeared during the last song to do teas/coffees (she did tell me where she was going, which was good). I sat in the pew, waiting to see what happened. After a few minutes, a lady came over and introduced herself. She asked if I was a visitor and, when I confirmed I was, she went and got me a welcome card to fill in. She then said, "We have to befriend people," which Im sure wasnt meant to sound as it came out! I then went and got a coffee and hung around at the back of the church for a bit, but no one else befriended me apart from someone who offered to take my empty cup back for me.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Tea and coffee were served from the small kitchen at the back of the church through a hatch. As the coffee was already in cups (plastic cups in plastic holders) and the tea was poured from a teapot, I couldnt tell if it was fair trade or not. The coffee was fine, if a little strong for me, and hot enough. There were no biscuits or cakes. As I wandered around at the back of the church, I spotted a jug of what looked like squash with bits of apple floating in it.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – Not sure about making it my regular church, to be honest. There was a lot about it that I liked, but I think I might be a bit more liberal than they are and might find it hard to fit in. I would need to visit a few more times before deciding. I don't have a regular church at the moment and am looking for one.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, especially as it was so multi-cultural and friendly. It reminded me of just how diverse the body of Christ is and that it's not all white and middle class!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The over-emphasis on the demonic.