For such a large building, it's quite easy to miss, situated as it on a side street between two main thoroughfares. The front looks quite austere, perhaps reflecting its congregationalist founding when it was built in the mid 19th century. As you walk in, you find a beautiful interior. The ironwork on the front of the balconies is a wonder to behold, and the whole place seemed very clean and light, but without being too ornate or gaudy.
They are a member of the Commission sphere of churches, a part of Newfrontiers. Their website also states that they have adopted the doctrinal basis of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, and are also a member of the Evangelical Alliance and the Evangelical Fellowship of Congregational Churches. Before the current minister took up his role, the church was pastored by the American evangelist RT Kendall for 25 years, and earlier than that by the Welsh evangelical minister Martin Lloyd-Jones for 29 years. They sponsor Life Groups, small groups of people who meet during the week in people’s homes across London. The Westminster Foodbank is based at the church.
Westminster Chapel is just a few yards down the road from Buckingham Palace, so on a Sunday morning the area played host to a lot of tourists as well as the household cavalry in full ceremonial dress, parading down Birdcage Walk. During the week, the tourists are diluted somewhat by a large number of civil servants and other government workers based in the various departments dotted around Westminster.
The service was led by Greg Haslam, senior pastor. The notices were given by Andy Mehigan. The sermon was given by guest speaker John Kirkby, founder of Christians Against Poverty.
What was the name of the service?11.00am Service
How full was the building?
Only the ground floor was used, in spite of there being two tiers of balconies above. The downstairs was fairly full, but not packed. I estimate there were about 200-250 people present, but if the whole church was used, it could comfortably accommodate twice that (Wikipedia says it could seat 1500 I think that's a bit much). Since the church is not based in a residential area, I was interested in finding out where people came from. Those that I spoke to seemed to come from the outskirts of London and commuted in every week.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was handed a notice sheet as I came in and someone opened a door for me, but no one said hello or attempted to initiate any kind of conversation.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was pretty comfortable. They have long, curved pews with a cushion on top. The only issue was that the depth of the seat wasn't particularly great, so the large-buttocked worshipper may struggle a bit. Also, the pews were rather close together, which may be an issue for the taller worshipper or those who wish to kneel.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was quietly friendly. People greeted one another and caught up on the news of the week, while some modern worship music was piped in over the PA system in the background.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Well, it's so good to see you all arriving."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There were New International Version Bibles in the pews. All songs were on a big screen, suspended above the front end of the main hall.
What musical instruments were played?
Electric keyboard, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, and a set of drums being played behind a perspex screen. The church had some very nice looking organ pipes, but they seem to be more ornamental these days.
Did anything distract you?
During one of the songs, someone to my left wanted to let out an impromptu cry of praise, though I couldn't help but notice the resemblance of the sound to that of a howling wolf.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Definitely happy-clappy. On a slightly nippy January morning, the first thing the worship leader told us to do was was to clap our hands to warm up. The songs were all modern choruses and there wasn't a hint of a vestment or liturgy anywhere to be seen or heard. Distinctly bottom of the candle.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
43 minutes, including a 5 minute video.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – John Kirkby spoke with great emotion and brought a great sense of Yorkshire straightforwardness to his talk.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was in connection with of the launch of a new Christians Against Poverty debt centre, based at the church and to be led by Andy Mehigan, who gave the notices. It was John Kirkby's personal testimony of how his life was destroyed by debt and how, after being shown the love of Jesus, he turned his life around and set about helping others through the founding of Christians Against Poverty.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sermon was excellent and very moving. The key words that stuck in my mind were that "Someone who is in debt, maybe they've made mistakes, maybe they haven't they don't need us to judge them. They need all the help, love and grace that we can give them."
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
One of the songs we sang at the end ("Spirit of the Sovereign God" by contemporary Christian songwriter Andy Park) was quite unfamiliar to me, but the lyrics:
"This is the year of the favor [sic] of the Lord; this is the day of the vengeance of our God" rather jarred with me, particularly in the way they were sung. It seemed a bit too happy clappy and not treating the subject of vengeance with enough gravitas.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I sat in my seat for a few minutes, waiting for someone to invite me for a coffee, but no one did. Eventually I went of my own accord. While I was standing in a small queue, one chap asked me, "Were you here for the sermon?" which struck me as a slightly odd question. but I answered in the affirmative. His follow-up question was "Can you sum up in one sentence what it was about?" I couldn't tell if he had come in late and was genuinely inquiring or if he was testing me.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Distinctly average coffee, rather bland, served in a paper cup though it was quite pleasing to see sugar cubes next to the coffee, instead of the caked sugar in a cup that you so often get when someone puts a teaspoon into the sugar after having stirred their drink first. There were some biscuits also, though this Mystery Worshipper was on a diet and thus refrained.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – A little hard to tell, as this clearly wasn't a regular Sunday service. It's a bit happy clappy for my taste, but there is a clear, passionate heart for practical gospel here.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
John's plea: it doesn't matter how we articulate the gospel in our words, but how we live it out every day.