New Testament Church of God, Brixton (exterior)

Brixton New Testament Church of God, Brixton, London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Brixton New Testament Church of God
Location: Brixton, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 27 November 2016, 11:00am

The building

They meet in a former Anglican church, St Saviour's, that was declared redundant in 1977. The building dates back to 1875 and is described as being in the "French 13th century style." Since it was taken over by NTCG it has evidently had some modifications done, but many of the original features survive. Most notably among these are the stained glass windows by the English firm of Heaton, Butler and Bayne, who were one of the leading Gothic Revival stained glass studios before they closed in 1953. There appears to have been a mezzanine floor added above the nave, with some rickety-looking stairs leading upwards. This obscures much of the ceiling, though some of the original ceiling peeks out to reveal a rather elegant set of wooden beams. Underneath the window in the chancel is a series of flagpoles, though with the flags drooped it was difficult to see all the nations represented. The church hall (now demolished) was used under the name Ambrose Chapel in Alfred Hitchcock's 1956 film The Man Who Knew Too Much.

The church

The church had been featured on a BBC documentary the week beforehand as part of their "Black and British" season; the documentary was entitled Life and Death the Pentecostal Way. We were told that there has been universal praise for the documentary and for the church, with commendations coming from Lambeth Palace and the Evangelical Alliance. The church is evidently an active fundraiser for a number of charities. Amongst those mentioned were the British Heart Foundation and a charity that was buying Christmas presents for the children of those currently incarcerated. The church runs a weekly all-age Sunday school and runs its own theological college, called Word of Life. The church is also very active in ecumenical circles, both locally and nationally, as the pastor, Bishop Dr Eric Brown, is one of the six presidents of Churches Together in England.

The neighborhood

If there's one word to sum up Brixton, one wouldn't go far wrong with "vibrant." It is a melting pot, with people drawn from all over the world to this small area of south London. There's always something going on, whether it be the food market, music gigs at the Academy, or an all-night of clubbing at Electric. The area is currently the subject of gentrification that has given rise to much tension and protest, especially over the development of the shops under the railway arches and plans to demolish a nearby housing estate called Cressingham Gardens. Brixton even has its own currency, the Brixton pound, which has been in circulation continuously since 2009.

The cast

Only some names were used amongst a panoply of people who joined in. The opening part of the service was led by Sister Maureen. The first set of prayers was led by Sister Ruth. Most of the rest of the service was led by Bishop Dr Eric Brown, who also preached.

What was the name of the service?

Divine Worship.

How full was the building?

At the start of the service, people were asked to move forward to fill the empty areas, but due to the large proportion of the congregation who arrived late, by the end every pew was filled. I estimate there were about 300 people present.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Not as I came in. One chap who had held the door open for a couple of elderly ladies took a quick glance at me and decided he had held it long enough; in he went, leaving me to fend for myself. There was no one inside the door to say hello, so I found a seat. The first word anyone spoke to me was "Sorry" by someone who trod on my foot. Later, they asked newcomers and guests to stand up; I was very reluctant to do so. Those who did received a small welcome booklet and a pen.

Was your pew comfortable?

The pews here were well cushioned, but the seat was a little narrow, making me feel like I was constantly perching on the edge. They were also fairly close together, making it potentially difficult for the taller worshipper. There was certainly no room to kneel here.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

As I came in, I wondered if I got the wrong time, as I seemed to have walked in mid-service. Someone was at the front talking and praying. But it turned out it was the end of a pre-service, all-age Sunday school. After that finished, there was five minutes of gentle murmur as friends greeted one another, while a keyboardist played at the same low volume level as the hum of the air conditioning.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Shall we praise the Lord?"

What books did the congregation use during the service?

There was barely a book in sight. All songs were projected onto a series of screens at the front of the church. We had to choose which screen to view, as the pillars obscured some of them depending on where you were sitting. The same was true for the Bible readings, which were taken from the King James Version.

What musical instruments were played?

I didn't get a good look from where I was, so I may be wrong. But from what little I could see, and from listening, I think there were two keyboards, a bass guitar and a set of drums.

Did anything distract you?

The volume of the worship, and of the microphones people were speaking into, was very loud. I was virtually underneath one of the speakers so was regretting not having brought any aspirin. One little boy in front me resorted to covering his ears. On the back of the pew in front of me was a small appendage, for want of a better word, that I think may have once been intended for holding a communion cup, but whose appearance made it look rather like an alarmed face. During the notices something else bothered me. They announced that there were going to be two funerals in the forthcoming week. They then corrected this by saying that the second funeral had been cancelled, but they never said why. The thought that there had been a resurrection got stuck in my head. Finally, I did wonder if it was normal for people to take selfies in church, as some people were doing somewhat surreptitiously during the sermon.

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

This was pedigree Pentecostalism. As the service opened, there was a call for chatter to stop and to respect the sanctity of the sanctuary we were in, with several references to us standing on holy ground. For the intercessory prayers, they asked everyone who would be travelling to come up to the front of the church, and about a quarter of the congregation squeezed forward to receive prayers for their safety and against a litany of potential disasters including liver disease, high blood pressure, cancer, terrorists and accidents. Throughout the service, various members of the congregation would randomly yell out "Amen," "Praise be," "Jesus" and other such pithy phrases. This was sometimes accompanied by standing up and sitting down again or waving a handheld fan. At times, especially during the sermon, I thought I might have been at an auction.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

35 minutes (including two interruptions).

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

9 – Bishop Eric is one of the most charismatic (in the sense of personality) preachers I've ever come across. His preaching was as much a performance as anything, and somewhat reminded me of James Brown's portrayal of a Pentecostal preacher in the film The Blues Brothers. The only thing that detracted from full marks was his tendency to repeat himself, always making sure that the second, third and fourth times of saying the same phrase were at ever-increasing volumes. He preached with such fervour that at times he took out a handkerchief to wipe sweat from his brow.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The sermon was based on Luke 8:40-56 (a girl restored to life and a woman healed from bleeding). However, before Bishop Eric had properly begun, he stopped. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a member of the congregation whom he introduced as Mother Brown. It was unclear if this was a term of reverence or if it was actually his mother. It seemed she had been absent for some time, but she was wheeled to the front of the church and asked to testify to God's goodness. With that interruption over, we moved back to the passage, which focused more on the healing of the woman who was bleeding. Wherever miracles and signs are, people will come; whether believers or the skeptical. This woman was desperate, and desperate people will do anything. But she had faith that if she pushed through, she could touch Jesus and be healed. We too, even if we have only a little faith or a little strength left in us, must be willing to use it to push through to Jesus and touch him. Because when the human touches the divine, something happens. If you push through, you will break through. Then there came a second interruption; this time it seemed to be more planned. A young man called Luke was brought to the front to testify to the points made in the sermon about the faith he had with regard to his career in carpentry. He had faced setbacks and seemed to have been on the harsh end of some injustices, but he remained faithful, got an apprenticeship, and recently qualified as carpenter.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Much of the service was a wonderful foretaste of eternity. Most notable was right at the end, when they were praying for the young people of the church. One slightly older teenager came forward and whispered in Bishop Eric's ear. It turned out that he had fled Jamaica for fear of his life and that he had come to the church seeking refuge. The young man was surrounded by people praying for him and pledging to protect him. It was a beautiful, but firm, example of love in practice. That someone could come here and ask for protection and be shown unconditional love was a marvelous witness to the gospel.

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

It is possible to have too much of a good thing? As the service went on, I was getting bored by the cries of "Hallelujah!" and "Bless the name of Jesus" that had been repeated ad nauseam, with their overuse having the effect of diluting those otherwise commendable statements.

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

A couple of people shook my hand, but nobody stopped for a conversation. There was some commotion at the back of the church as one young lady, overcome with emotion, was crying out the name of Jesus extremely loudly. Some might say she was in some sort of ecstatic throes as she screamed and wept, barely holding onto her friend who was trying to calm her down.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There were no refreshments of any kind. We were just sent out into the chill November air.

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

8 – It was clear that this is a church of prayer and passion. But the fact that I came, stayed and left without anyone saying more than that they were sorry put me off a bit.

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


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

That church must be a place of refuge.

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