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3227: The Bear Church, Deptford, London
The Bear Church, Deptford
Mystery Worshipper: Sipech.
The church: The Bear Church, Deptford, London.
Denomination: Independent Evangelical.
The building: Set back some way from Deptford High Street, the church meets in a building called Shaftsbury Christian Centre. From the outside, it looks like a fairly well hidden community centre. It is all based on a ground floor and appeared to be wheelchair accessible, albeit the front door might be a narrow squeeze. Inside, it looks like a small converted warehouse, with the overriding colour being grey. The church is laid out side-on, with four sections of seating, each consisting of a few rows each. Hanging from the ceiling is a modern ornamental cross, seemingly made out of thick wire and mirrors.
The church: The church was founded as a student church, which was part of Icththus Christian Fellowship. However, they separated from Icththus about 15 years ago and have been independent ever since. The church's unusual name came from their first building, when they bought a pub called the Brown Bear on Deptford High Street. They hold two services on a Sunday. The morning one, which I attended, is a more traditional (small t) church service. The evening service uses the term "service" in a very literal way, as the building becomes a dining hall for local addicts and people who are homeless, with members of the congregation out on the streets inviting others in. They rely on members of the congregation to cook, clean, be a front-of-house welcome, etc. The church holds English language lessons for members of the local community who have moved to Deptford from overseas. The church also does a biannual pantomime and is currently casting, with particular emphasis on looking for a dame, as pastor Paul thinks someone else should have a go.
The neighbourhood: Deptford is really the less glamorous end of Greenwich. It has a distinctly grotty feel to it, with dirty streets and smelly meat and fish shops lining the high street. The local supermarket had had its window smashed in on the morning I visited. The area's name is a corruption of "Deep Ford" as it marked the crossing of the Ravensbourne River, a tributary of the Thames. It is mentioned by Chaucer in the Reeve's Tale and later was the scene of the murder of the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe, outside of a local pub.
The cast: The service was mostly led by Rachel, whose surname I didn't catch, with the sermon given by the pastor, Paul Adlington.
The date & time: Sunday, 3 September 2017, 10.30am.

What was the name of the service?
The service didn't appear to have a name.

How full was the building?
It was nigh on full; I could only see four empty chairs. A rough headcount said there was about 80 people present. Though when the children and the children's workers left part way through the service, almost half the church departed to other rooms. There was a good mix of most age groups, though with a slight paucity of the over 60s.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
There was almost a queue to get in, as people were stopped and welcomed. I had a fair handshake on the door from Rachel. After I took my seat, a couple of people made the effort to come over and say hello.

Was your pew comfortable?
The church comes with two forms of seating. Most people were sat on characterless grey plastic chairs, which were neither comfortable nor uncomfortable. However, there were a few sofas around the room, most of which had been snaffled by the youth.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
As I took my seat, the band were practising, which made it a little noisy and lively, but so much that you couldn't hear people talk. It was generally friendly and busy, though people didn't need to be chivvied in order to take their seats.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"OK, hello. Can we please stand up? Welcome to The Bear."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The song lyrics, notices and scriptures were all projected onto two screens. One was behind the small stage that hosted the band; the other was at right angles to this, at the far side of the room. Some of the writing was a little small and hard to read. The scriptural texts were taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version, though with an interesting caveat that was pointed out in the sermon. That is, Paul, along with many other theologians, doesn't find the NIV to be a particularly faithful translation. But he insisted on using it so that people would be kept on their toes, as we ought to be suspicious of the Bible and its translations.

What musical instruments were played?
Electric keyboard, acoustic guitar, bass guitar, drums.

Did anything distract you?
Over on the far side of the room there was a small section of people who were bathed in a green light. It wasn't clear why this was so. Towards the end of the sung worship, some young boys started kicking a foam football around the back of the church.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was very middle-of-the-road evangelical worship, with something for everyone. It was very informal, the bulk of the service being taken up with songs and the sermon. In between the parts of sung worship there was plenty of time given to church family life, with contributions from a number of members of the congregation who shared recent experiences, reasons for joy and thanksgiving, as well as items for prayer. These included a short report from some of the youth who had recently returned from the Greenbelt festival; one of them summarised it as "camping, with lots of seminars; mostly about Israel/Palestine." Others shared experiences about crossing bridges while on holiday and one person described learning to fly a glider.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
39 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Paul spoke with a noticeable south London accent that disguised his scholarship. He paused occasionally to check that people were following him. He also dealt ably when, towards the end, someone heckled him to ask how the sermon could be applied and help them in the forthcoming week. He had to curtail what he had prepared and flipped through several points, saying "Skip, skip, skip" as he went along.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
They were carrying on a series in Ephesians. After about a year and half, they have just finished the first chapter, with today being an overview of the second chapter. The general theme was about being "in." The idea of being a Gentile was that they were "not in," but that the gospel now meant that for all Gentiles, all those who were excluded, are now "in;" they belong. We were dead in sin, but it's not overly important how that came about. The important point was that we were all in sin together but that all of us, Gentiles and Jews alike, are now part of the people who belong. Christianity is about corporate failure and corporate calling, not individualism, though this must never be used as excuse for bypassing personal responsibility. Paul (the preacher, that is, not Saul of Tarsus) was quite explicit about rejecting the Augustinian
notion of original sin, but noted that we do have a natural inclination towards sin. To obey God is to love, but if we're honest it's hard self-sacrificially to love everyone equally. Paul admitted being biased towards his own children and, in a slightly tongue-in-cheek manner, confessed to occasionally wanting to kill other people.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
During the family news, after sharing the happier parts of the news, one lady came up to the front to give a testimony about travelling back to Nigeria to be with family, but that September was not a happy time for them for a number of reasons that were given but which, for discretionary purposes, are not spelled out here. It was an incredibly moving moment, with a palpable sense of a grief that was shared among the congregation. While it might seem strange to describe this as heavenly, it was the honesty and the sense of community that struck me. There were no false pretenses here; it was church in the raw.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
We sang a version of "
Great is thy faithfulness," which is one of my favourite hymns. However, it was done at a bizarre pace, with some parts excessively slow and strange pauses inserted into places, but then with some lines sung at a more normal speed. It was just so uneven it was hard to follow, with many of the congregation jumping into the next line a bar or two early. While the lyrics displayed the "thee, thy, thou" traditional lyrics, some people were singing the more modern "you, your" lyrics, which added to the confusion.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Several more people came up to introduce themselves, including Paul. I was invited for coffee and got to learn a little more about the church. Paul invited me to keep in touch so we could have a longer chat over coffee, as he had to rush off for a Star Wars exhibition.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Served in a solid-looking mug, it was medium in every aspect. It wasn't too strong, without being weak. It wasn't too hot, but wasn't tepid. It had some flavour to it, but wasn't anything special. Alongside the drinks, there was a good selection of biscuits and some very juicy looking slices of fruit.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – This was an example of evangelicalism at its best. There was a strong community feel, solid orthodox teaching, a mixture of old and new styles of worship and it has an outward focus of serving the local community. Absolutely my cup of tea.

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

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The novel practice of deliberately using a poor translation in order to make people think.

 
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