A virtual first visit to our church
Many people first hear about us by some chance event - perhaps they saw our stall at Pride and take some leaflets and a promotional card, perhaps even having a good chat with one of the volunteers on the stall and resolving that they really should get along one day. Others find us via the internet - looking for an accepting church where they won’t be judged. Others know people who come along and resolve that they should check us out.
Others find us through this website or social networks such as Twitter or Facebook and spend time getting to know us 'virtually' before deciding that they would value the fellowship and community which come through sharing together in worship.
Whatever it is that encourages you to make that first visit, we would like to share a story with you - the story of Fred's first visit to our church. Although Fred is a character we've invented for the story, we hope that you will experience all the positive things about being among us which made Fred want to come back.
Almost nine months after finding a postcard which he'd picked up the previous year at Manchester Pride, Fred looked up our details on the internet to check the time of Sunday worship time and to review the map of where we meet, and came along for the first time.
He arrived in good time – about 15 minutes before worship started, parked in Egerton Road South and walked back to the church doors. The pastor was standing on the front steps greeting people and he said “Hi” to Fred. Fred went in and was greeted by two people who gave him an order of service and a “welcome pack”. They asked his name and introduced themselves.
Fred decided where he wanted to sit and started to look around the building. It was quite a large United Reformed Church in an excellent state of decoration. The musicians were chatting at the front, and there was a nice buzz around the place as people caught up with their friends. Music was playing in the background and Fred recognised some of the melodies; he quite liked the sound of the ones he didn’t know.
A screen was set up at the front, and the scrolling information on the screen was interesting. The theme of the service was announced – Fred wondered what on earth Desperate Housewives (one of his favourite programmes) would have to do with Christian worship! The message on the screen also said he was welcome here and he was struck by the message that we believed in “faith without fear, passion without prejudice and holiness without hatred”.
As the service started, the screen changed to some other slides and the leader stood up to greet people warmly, lead the congregation through the opening responses and announce the first songs.
The songs were lively and very well played. The choir sang well, giving the congregation confidence to sing loudly and joyfully. They were accompanied by a keyboard player. Fred found the songs easy to sing with very powerful words. After the songs, the leader offered a thoughtful opening prayer and then the reader stepped forward and gave the reading.
Fred then saw the pastor come forward and start his sermon. He said it was about the secrets that we all keep, or have kept, and said that one of the characters in Desperate Housewives had the trouble of keeping a secret. Then a clip from the show was played – it was one of Fred’s favourites, showing Gabrielle try to get rid of her lover, John, out of the window when her husband came home. Clearly the congregation liked it too as they were laughing. The sermon went on to talk about how it is very tiring to keep secrets and that Jesus reminds us in the Gospel reading that one day all that is kept secret will be exposed. Fred remembered how difficult it was to keep the secret of his sexuality when he was at university. The pastor urged us to live lives of openness and honesty – saying how much more energy we would have. His sermon was illustrated with other thought-provoking pictures on the screen.
After the sermon there was another song, and then the leader invited the congregation to affirm their faith using a prepared Statement of Faith. Today they were using the Apostles’ Creed. After this came the collection; the leader explained that everyone was welcome to give but that first time visitors were guests and were under no obligation to give. Fred was relieved as he had forgotten to bring any change! He thought he would bring some money next week.
After the leader had given thanks for the collection, another person stepped forward and led the prayers. These were well thought out and the congregation were invited to respond to them using the words “hear our prayer”. Fred found this a bit structured but then he remembered how long “open prayer” had gone on in his previous church and smiled, thinking that maybe some structure was a good thing.
During the Lord’s Prayer, another person stepped forward and prepared the altar for Communion. The celebrant explained that everyone was welcome to receive and explained how Holy Communion would be given out. After a short prayer a sung “Holy, Holy Holy” was led by the choir with enthusiastic singing from the congregation. Then came a longer prayer with another sung response, "Lamb of God", at the end.
As Fred went forward with the others to communion he noticed a skinhead, a lesbian couple, a trans person, a straight couple and children all going forward to receive Communion. He felt quite emotional at this wonderful example of God’s diverse creation all worshipping together and he felt very touched after he received communion.
He went back to his pew to pray and noticed that a video was playing. It mixed images and a religious song to quite good effect. After the video stopped playing the leader said that we'd spend a few minutes in "God's silent presence". Fred had never experienced silent prayer in a group before but found a deep sense of peace settled over him and he was amazed that so many people could be still before God at the same time. He was deeply touched. After a congregational prayer the choir led in a gentle song bringing this special time of prayer to a close.
After Communion, the leader led the congregation in a closing prayer and then the pastor came and gave the notices. There seemed to be a lot of things going on and Fred was interested in a meal together next week after worship and a trip out to the cinema in two weeks time. Fred liked going to the cinema but often didn’t like going alone. He wanted to see the film they were going to see. The closing song was rousing and he enjoyed singing it. The pastor went out during this song and was ready to greet people as the service ended.
After worship Fred gave his service sheet back to the pastor and took a newsletter. The pastor invited him to sign a Visitors Slip and then he went to get some refreshments. The greeter and the Pastor started to chat to him and, a little later on, introduced him to two or three others, who included him in their conversation.
Fred left the church that evening feeling much better about himself, the world, and God, and really wanting to come along again next week. He has signed up for the meal and the cinema trip. Later on in the week he was delighted to receive a welcome card from the pastor.
Fred was looking forward to next week’s service.