Ossington Avenue Baptist, Toronto

Ossington Avenue Baptist, Toronto, Ontario, Canada


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Ossington Avenue Baptist
Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Date of visit: Sunday, 15 April 2012, 11:00am

The building

It's a brick building with some Gothic Revival attributes, such as the ogival arched windows and the decorative buttresses on the east side. The most noticeable feature of the church from the outside is the LED board that faces diagonally into the intersection with the service times. Genius.

The church

They are in an ethnically diverse neighbourhood not too far from Koreatown, so I assumed that I would be sitting in a mixed congregation with a Korean pastor. Wrong! I found out when I walked in that the congregation are predominantly black. I think that many are Jamaican in heritage, based on the several references to Jamaica during the service. When the pastor asked if there were any visitors (I was the only one), I silently willed myself to blend in so I wouldn't have to stand up and introduce myself to the congregation. It didn't work; I'm Asian.

The neighborhood

The church is located at the corner of Bloor Street and Ossington Avenue, directly across from the Ossington subway station. This area has historically been an ethnically diverse community, with large Portuguese, Italian, and Ethiopian populations. However, more recently, the neighbourhood has been infiltrated by hipsters and is becoming rapidly gentrified.

The cast

The Revd Anthony Chung, pastor.

What was the name of the service?

Family Worship Service.

How full was the building?

About half full. I'd estimate that there were 100-150 people in the congregation, primarily older people and young families.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I was welcomed by a greeter when I entered the sanctuary but was confused when he didn't hand me a bulletin. It turned out the bulletins weren't ready yet, which led to a bit of a mad dash for them when they finally arrived right as the service was beginning.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was your basic bench pew. Since the church was only about half full, there was plenty of room to put my bag and jacket beside me, as well as to lay out my bulletin, notebook, and Bible. That's right, I like to claim my territory.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

There was lots of chatting, and a few people were roaming around the sanctuary saying hi to their friends. People definitely know one another in this church, and as an unfamiliar face, I got a lot of head-turns when I walked in. A few people welcomed me, but most people just looked at me with curiosity until the pastor invited me to introduce myself during the service. My presence then became somehow sanctioned, and everyone rushed to shake my hand during the greetings.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning, friends. Greetings to you all in the name of Jesus, the Lord and Risen One."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

None. There were copies of the The Holy Bible, King James Version, and the Hymnal for Worship and Celebration in each pew, but we never used them. Scripture readings and song lyrics were displayed on the PowerPoint instead.

What musical instruments were played?

Officially, piano, drums, and a 15-person choir. I'd say that there were soloists, but really, I just mean that everyone in the choir was singing the melody but some people got microphones. Unofficially (I think), a tambourine and a cabasa (another small hand percussion instrument) seemed to appear out of nowhere in the congregation.

Did anything distract you?

This congregation definitely put on their Sunday best every week: the men were in suits and ties, and the women wore hats that could rival the headgear you'd see at the Royal Ascot. I spent a lot of time marveling at their hats.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

The music consisted largely of contemporary praise and worship songs, such as "Here I Am to Worship", "Trading My Sorrows", and "My Redeemer Lives." The band did its best to capture the energy and spirit of this music, but the results were pretty square. I was confused about the role of the choir: since everyone was just singing the melody, it didnt seem necessary to have so many people up there, especially when those who weren't "soloists" mostly just stood around looking blasé. Fortunately, their listless attitude did not rub off on the congregation, who sang enthusiastically and tried to clap along to the music – or whipped out their own instruments. There's a common perception that black people have a better sense of rhythm, but the congregation here were charmingly incapable of finding the beat. Based on my experiences at other churches, I think that Christians of all stripes just have a horrible sense of rhythm.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

37 minutes in itself, 43 minutes including the video clip of "We Fall Down" that Pastor Anthony played at the end of his sermon. That's six whole minutes of Donnie McClurkin singing ad nauseam, "We fall down, but we get up."

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

7 – The pastor used the usual three-point sermon structure, which was clearly outlined on the PowerPoint, but every point had subpoints and subpoints within subpoints, which made his sermon very long. Nonetheless, his sermon was easy to follow, and every point had both a scriptural reference and an application, which I appreciated.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The sermon was entitled "You Can Begin Again: Rise Up, Return, and Be Restored." It was a discussion of the concept of personal resurrection using the parable of the prodigal son. The basic outline is that we need to (1) recognize when and from where we have fallen, (2) forsake our present state and accept the consequences of our fall, and (3) accept God's forgiveness and advance beyond our past failures. Pretty basic stuff, but he managed to make it sound fresh, and I certainly found it applicable to my own life.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Everything about the service was very heartfelt. The singing wasnt pitch-perfect, and the sermon was a bit unwieldy, but you could tell that it was all done with faith and joy. The congregation was also clearly in tune with the pastor, and there were frequent nods of "Amen" throughout the service. It was a true community of believers.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

By the time the sermon started, we were already an hour into the service. I had a dreading feeling at this point that the sermon would be long, but I had no idea how long. It felt even longer than it actually was because I was hungry, I was going to be late for my brunch plans, and I badly needed to visit the facilities. The service clocked in at two full hours (even without communion), and I made a beeline for the washroom right after.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

The bulletin specifically asked that we "remain seated in prayerful meditation during the musical postlude." However, no one seemed to pay attention to this request, and everyone began immediately buzzing about afterwards. People crowded around to greet me and invited me to come back, and one woman made sure I knew that there were refreshments in the Sunday school hall downstairs. Several people came by to chat with me while I was waiting in line for snacks or nibbling on them afterwards. They seemed really excited to have a visitor.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The offerings were abundant. I've never seen such a large buffet of after-service snacks at any church: cheese, crackers, fruit, baked goods, candy, beef patties. (I could definitely get used to the beef patties.) There was also a choice of tea and "church juice", which the server joked was made from a secret recipe. Let's be honest: it was probably just a mix of every juice that happened to be on sale at the supermarket that week, but it tasted delicious.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

5 – I enjoyed the sermon and found there was a strong sense of community, but the service was way too long, and I felt like too much of a novelty item as someone who doesn't fit into the general demographic of the congregation.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes! The service was a heartfelt, joyful expression of faith, and the congregation seems like a real community.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

Finding out that the Reverend Anthony Chung is not only not Asian, but is a black man. Oh, boy!

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