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2686: Honor Oak Baptist, London
Honor Oak Baptist, London
Mystery Worshipper: Sipech.
The church: Honor Oak Baptist, London.
Denomination: Baptist Union of Great Britain. They are also a member of the Evangelical Alliance.
The building: It's quite an impressive building to look at from the outside, standing out from among the local shops and houses. It was recently redeveloped so that the church uses only a function room on the ground floor and a portion of what was the attic as the main hall. The rest is domestic dwellings. Though the church meets on the top floor, there are lifts in place, so it is very accessible for the disabled, the elderly, and those with children (each of whom were represented in the congregation).
The church: The church officially formed in 1889 and has been meeting in the same area since then. There was something of a schism in the mid-1920s with some members leaving to form Honor Oak Christian Fellowship under the leadership of Theodore Austin-Sparks, who resigned his Baptist ordination and would later become known for several books on the divinity of Christ. Today, the church's key ministry seems to be the hosting of a Girls' Brigade, though judging from the notices it seems this group is struggling to attract numbers. Their website also mentions a Monday ballroom dancing group, Tuesday "friendly morning", Wednesday prayer group, and Thursday coffee morning for "tea, coffee, biscuits and chat – knitting optional."
The neighbourhood: Honor Oak straddles the border between the London boroughs of Southwark and Lewisham. The area is named after a local legend of Queen Elizabeth I taking picnic near an oak tree that became known as the oak of Honor Hill. The church is located a short walk from Peckham Rye Park, which makes for a lovely spot to have a picnic if you're visiting the area. The area's most famous residents were the comedian Spike Milligan and the actor Boris Karloff.
The cast: The service was led by "Jim", a retired minster from Glasgow, who also preached. There was also a short farewell address by the Revd Paul Gardiner, their outgoing pastor.
The date & time: Sunday, 27 April 2014, 11.00am.

What was the name of the service?
The retirement of the Revd Paul Gardiner.

How full was the building?
About 40 people present – the hall was just under half full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Upon arrival, I was utterly perplexed as I appeared simply to be in a hallway with no sign of where the church met. There were a few people talking near the door. One, Hazel, directed me up several flights of stairs to the top floor. After arriving, I was greeted by the Revd Paul, who was very welcoming.

Was your pew comfortable?
We had nicely cushioned green seats, complete with arm rests. They were wide enough for the, erm, larger worshipper but not so plush that one might fall asleep in them.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quietly friendly. There was some choral music being played through the sound system. The Revd Paul was going round to those who had arrived early, talking to as many as people as he could.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning. Welcome to our morning worship. We had a lovely celebration last night."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
We sang from Mission Praise and read from the New International Version of some encouragingly well-worn Bibles.

What musical instruments were played?
Just a lone piano, which was very well played.

Did anything distract you?
There was one gentleman behind me who managed to sing one note and one note only for every song. I am sure there was a good reason for that, but it was still a bit off-putting nonetheless.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was fairly middle-of-the-road for a Baptist church, as hinted at by the use of Mission Praise. There weren't any strong singers so it was a little muted (barring the above).

Exactly how long was the sermon?
17 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – There wasn't a great amount of structure to the sermon and it rapidly diverged from the text that was read. That said, when it came to the anecdotes, Jim was a very good storyteller. It was suggested to me afterward that his Glaswegian accent may have been difficult to understand, but I didn't find it that strong.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
From a starting point of Psalm 92:12-15 ("The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree"), there was an encouragement to the Revd Paul that "In old age they shall still produce fruit." From here it moved to a more general message of the sufficiency of God's grace through some anecdotes that seemed unrelated to the passage that was read.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The Revd Paul's final address to the church was a wonderful and heartfelt piece. Having been the pastor for the past ten years, during which he oversaw much of the renovation of the building, he was generous in his thanks to those who had supported him. There were a couple of video messages from those who couldn't be there. The impression I garnered from these is that he has been a great pastor at a personal level to a great number of people. His parting exhortation to the church was: "Keep telling people about Jesus."

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
One of the videos that was made for this service was rotated at right angles, so we had to crane our necks rather awkwardly to see it. It also cut out rather disturbingly just as the person making the video picked up a large chainsaw!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We were invited downstairs for drinks and some food that was left over from a bigger celebration held the night before. I had a cup of coffee with Hazel, who had met me when I arrived, and with Jim, the visiting preacher, though I still didn't catch his surname. We had a lovely chat in which Hazel described how she had recently returned to church after many years away.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It was reasonable, but not spectacular. There was a presumption that people would have tea, so I felt a little awkward asking for a drink that wasn't on display. Given it was a buffet very much for the church congregation, I felt out of place being there, but they were all marvelously welcoming and open to strangers.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – Given the church will be having a new minister soon, it is unlikely that this service was representative of what is to come. But the community I witnessed is a great example of an open, welcoming evangelical Baptist church.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. There was a great warmth amongst the people, and this reflects very well on the pastoral leadership of the Revd Paul.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Hazel's testimony of returning to church.
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