790: Hillsong London, Mermaid Theatre, Puddle Dock, Blackfriars, London
Mystery Worshipper: Bethanyaa.
The church: Hillsong London, at the Mermaid Theatre, Puddle Dock, Blackfriars, London.
Denomination: An offshoot of Hillsong in Sydney, Australia, renowned for their contribution to worship music.
The building: A plain, office-block type building on top of Blackfriars Underground station, formerly used as a commercial theatre, now a conference centre with all the amenities. It was not well signposted from within the station (we used Exit 1) and had to cross a fairly busy road. No wheelchair access to the seats that I could see.
The church: The congregation was almost entirely in their twenties, approximately two-thirds white and one third black/Asian. I was one of the oldest people there at 36. The pastor looked about 40ish. There were sizeable contingents from Australia and South Africa, going by the enthusiastic cheers following their mention.
The neighbourhood: Nice to see central London so quiet on a Sunday.
The cast: Don’t know the name of the worship leader. Gary Clarke is the pastor. He didn”t introduce himself but I saw a photo of him in the introductory pack.
What was the name of the service?
10.00am Sunday service (the first of four meetings for the day).
How full was the building?
Almost completely full – a small section at the middle back was roped off and unused. Approximately 600 people.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
We joined the pre-service crowds in the foyer of the theatre. Kids’ church starts 5 minutes before the adult service, so there was some milling about. As we looked at leaflets, a young guy asked if he could help. When I said it was our first visit, he made sure we had a copy of all the booklets and leaflets. A friendly usher showed us to some spare seats.
Was your pew comfortable?
Very comfortable: a well-padded flip-up theatre seat with individual arm rests.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Chaotic. Loud rock music blaring out and MTV-type collages flashing up on the large overhead screens as people were shown to their seats by ushers. The seats were mainly taken by 9.50am.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
There were no opening words. A new track started on the sound system, the worship group filed onto the stage one by one, took their places with their instruments and we launched into a song unknown to me.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The pastor preached from The Message (a modern Bible translation), but said we could look up the passage in other versions if we preferred. All the song lyrics were projected onto large screens and were easily readable.
What musical instruments were played?
Five guitars (four electric, one acoustic), two keyboards, and two drummers (one strangely encased in a glass cubicle). A choir of a dozen or so at the back with a conductor, and six singers at the front around the acoustic guitarist who led the worship.
Did anything distract you?
A couple of whingy babies who were soon hushed. The temperature was perfect, the lighting muted. The laptop operator responsible for projecting song lyrics was having a bad day – there was some faltering on changing to the next verse, and he/she seemed to lose the plot during the sermon. The pastor seemed a little peeved at this.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Worship music for the KERRANG! Generation. Felt very much like the Nine o’clock Sheffield service from the early 90s (I was involved in an offshoot in Chiswick). I’ve been to quieter rock concerts. Ear-blisteringly loud and lots of enthusiastic “Christian pogo-ing” on the spot. After a while it became monotonous as the worship songs were nondescript. I yearned for something quieter, slower and more conducive to allowing the Holy Spirit to direct proceedings. The worship group was technically excellent. They seemed to have practised to the point of polished slickness in a positive sense. There was no opportunity for the congregation to have any input, as this was very much led from the front.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
35 minutes. I thought the sermon had started after the singing, but we had a mini 10-minute sermon on finances and how God wants to prosper us even more this year and that we can create wealth – i.e. standard Word of Faith teaching. I had an attack of the giggles at one point: the pastor read 1 Timothy 6:17 (from, I think, the New Living Translation): “Tell those who are rich in this world not to be proud and not to trust in their money, which will soon be gone” – as the black buckets were being prepared to pass round for the tithes and offerings. No one else seemed to see the irony in this.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – His speaking voice was relaxed and chatty. I couldn’t place his accent. It may have been New Zealand or toned-down Australian. There wasn’t much structure to what he was saying and I found it hard to connect the points. He walked across the stage a lot – he had an earpiece microphone on so no trailing leads, and on a couple of occasions said “Am I reaching you with this?” and “Does this make sense?”
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The first 10 minutes involved graphs and charts showing what percentage of the offerings over the past four years had been used on salaries, venue costs, etc. No actual figures were given. He did say that the church currently employed 13 people and hoped to add a few more staff members soon. The main part was about “doing life with a sense of confidence”. He glanced in the direction of Hebrews 10:35, and then gave a New Agey series of soundbites and pop-psychology about “operating in a life-zone” and “impacting others successfully.” There was very little of the genuine gospel in it. I might as well have been at a motivational conference.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The song finishing the meeting, “Here I am to worship”. Still very loud, but not racing. It seemed more focused on God himself, rather than on what he could do for us.
And which part was like being in… er… the other place?
The preaching. This was “another gospel” indeed. There was a prayer at the end that backsliders/unbelievers could pray to be reconciled to God. This made no mention of sin, repentance or forgiveness, just being “determined” to follow God.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
It was announced that coffee was served on the mezzanine floor so we followed the crowd. One girl rudely pushed past me to get out of the seats. Perhaps she heard there were biscuits on offer.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Good hot filter coffee or tea of various kinds including herbal, served in strong paper cups. No biscuits that I saw. A couple of people walked round with large flasks offering refills.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – The teaching was shallow in the main and had little basis in the Bible, with a definite New Age improve-your-life slant, although it did finish with saying that the key to our confidence is putting our trust in God. I felt the pastor was trying too hard to be hip and relevant to young people and hence didn’t give any “strong meat” from the Bible. I gather more serious biblical teaching happens at the Strand Palace Hotel on a weekday night, but each session costs £10. Altogether, it was so large that it felt anonymous. I felt as if I would have to make a determined effort to get more involved and be noticed if I were to stay. I picked up a home group directory – there are groups in all parts of London.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes – I was grateful that my roots are in God and his word, because it would have been very easy to get carried away by the noise and hype.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days’ time?
Two passing comments from the pastor: “What you do with £10 in your pocket shows what you would do with £1 million.” And: “If you go round criticizing and asking, ‘What’s in it for me?’ you become whinging, snivelling, grumbling, low-impact, high-maintenance Christians.”