Sunday, 27 February 2011
Victoria Park Baptist Church, Grove Road,
Blessed are Amazon Kindles, praise to the Adobe Acrobat reader, and thank Jesus for podcasts, projectors and power point presentations. This week the Baptist Victoria Park church on Grove Road taught me that God loves all forms of modern technology and even the worldwide web (despite its primary use as the world’s main provider of pornography). The Victoria Park Baptists put their faith in a God that is the omnipotent force behind the Google search engine countering the more Luddite, traditionalist and ritualistic Gods of past Sundays. In the service everything was praised to God from technological innovations and scientific discoveries to the emerging social and political changes such as the recent emerging democracy in Sudan and the imminent arrival of the Olympics in east London. Baptists’ mixing of modern social issues and recent technologies with Bible teachings was comparable to the Mission of Christ Faith Gospel Church’s creative use of the Holy Scripture. The Mission related Bible parables to the modern immigrant experiences of its entirely black congregation where as the predominantly white Baptists had an emphasis on being modern professionals whilst also bringing the country back to God. The two culturally different churches had two contrasting concerns; the Mission felt under threat by the immigration cap compared to the current Baptist congregation's desire to expand and find new converts.
Baptists are opposed to infant baptism instead favouring believers’ baptism, marking a clear theological distinction that Baptist’s fundamentally believe in Christianity as a choice. A belief in choice always reminds me of the opening monologue from the film Trainspotting.
Choose a Christian band, Choose three female singers with wobbly voices, Choose a drummer with an AC/DC T shirt, Choose Acoustic and Electric guitar and any guitar that someone can play, Choose a single Recorder, Choose not to discriminate, Choose anyone who thinks they can sing, Choose to be chosen.
Choose not to hand out the Bible, Choose to supply all information from a projector, Choose modern hymns with Karaoke text, Choose sermons in the form of power point presentations, Choose Times New Roman Font, Choose bullet points not numbers, Choose Watermark Blue instead of Ethereal Green, Choose everything the computer will allow you
Choose to have a crèche in the corner for young parents, Choose tea and biscuits for the elderly, Choose to run an Alpha course for the young, Choose to recruit Street Pastors to help care for drunks on a Friday and a Saturday night, Choose Christianity as an expanding community not a lone church.
Choosing to treat Christianity like a consumer lifestyle makes me see Baptists not as Christians reborn but more rebranded, spreading Christianity into the community through more modern methods. The Reverend Jane Thorington-Hassell is a perfect example of a modern day preacher; her sermons are available as podcasts and her notes available for download from www.vpbc.org.uk/. Plus you can regularly visit her blog entitled Following Jesus in East London at http://www.blogspot.com/. The reason behind my cynicism was not the appallingly dull Christian band, the placid use of technology or the patronising community outreach, all of these elements are good natured and well-intentioned but it was the content of the sermon that made me look upon the church with suspicion.
Reverend Jane Thornington-"Hassle" was easily the most articulate, intelligent and candid preacher I have had the privilege to witness and she scared the crap out of me. Dressed like the head mistress of a village primary school her country clothes were out of place in urban east London but entirely justified by the air of authority in her character.It was not her stern old battle-axe manner, the judging tone of the voice or the sheer emotional gravitas of her silences that made me worried but the words that came out of her mouth. Jane focused on the book of Colossians in which the apostle Paul when under house arrest made a request to the Colossians to pray for the opportunity to proclaim the mystery of Christ. The key passage Jane focused upon was “Withall praying also for us, that God would open unto us a door of utterance, to speak the mystery of Christ,” which she felt outlined the need for the congregation to pray for the opportunity to tell non-believers about the power of Christ. The explicit sermon on conversion made me feel like a double agent witness to a sinster conspiracy with the exception that my conspiritors wanted nothing kept secret.
I don’t know why I was so shocked to hear a sermon on gaining converts but the previous churches had never been so explicit and I naively presumed most churches had given up. Jane was clearly on a mission as she, in her own words, “thanked god that she had been given the lucky position to sometimes have the amazing opportunity of having a captive audience to tell about the glory of Christ,” giving funerals as her perfect example. Personally I feel funerals are for the dead or more importantly the living’s remembrance of the dead. Jane’s candid attitude made me so angry as I thought of how many moments of grief she had hijacked, with her holy scripture in hand, in the name of Christian opportunism. To justify such behaviour it seemed Jane needed to draw a wild comparison from London 2011 to Collosse AD 55. To quote the modern day prophet she outlined that “Colosse AD 55 so in London AD 2011 – there are religions and philosophies from the East about cosmic powers and forces. As in Colosse so in London people were used to mixing religions buffet style.” Obviously I am eating from a different plate of the Christian buffet every Sunday and I felt personally hurt that my interest was being attacked by this self-important spiritual dinner lady. At least she did not predictably attack isolationist Muslims but the more broad foreign subjects such as Buddhism, Yoga and maybe even the local curry houses. To be fair to the Reverend her main concern was that new age spiritualism had replaced all spirituality linked to Christianity, but her anger seemed to come from a feeling that governments and churches had let the country/Christ down and it was now for true followers of Christ to seize the opportunity (I am sure the same sentiments are shared by the English Defense League not that she would agree with them).
The belief in praying for an opportunity was a self-fulfilling prophecy as she moved onto how the church was to run as a recreational centre during the Olympics providing a private and quiet space for “new comers,” wanting to chill out from the hectic environment. The Olympics seemed to be a star to hang the dreams of a new Christian movement and the need to find opportunities to enlist new recruits undercuts all the good work within the community that the church does. Crèche facilities for toddlers, tea and biscuits for the elderly, Alpha courses for the young, Street Pastors for the weekend drunks; all of the Church’s outreach programmes sense of worth now seemed to be measured by the number of converts. Rating a programme's success by the numbers of converts is upsettingly superficial and more importantly spiritually lacking. However in the context of Cameron’s big society in which all front line public services are being destroyed, the congregation of Victoria Park Baptist Church are in an ideal position to pick up the vulnerable. I don’t mean to criticise the good work the outreach programmes achieve but if Reverend Jane chooses to view the rise in new age spirituality as mixing religions "buffet style," I equate the Baptist outreach programmes to giving food to the hungry and the homeless, where the vulnerable will eat anything as they don’t have a choice. The Victoria Park Baptist church chooses and succeeds in promoting itself as a modern and contemporary institution but when it comes to new recruits its techniques are older than the church itself.
All Christians in Britain live in one of the most modern societies in the world, statistically they are more likely to have IPhones than not, the majority will have Facebook profiles and a lot of them probably tweet daily. To my knowledge no Christians in the East End live in caves (but if they do please contact me) and the majority of Christians enjoy all the benefits of modern technology without considering the implications to their faith. My main concern for the Baptist Church is that in an attempt to be desperately modern they become victim to the insecurities of the modern world and therefore become compromised. A facet to all the churches I have visited is I can always find at least one member of the congregation who has such unflinching faith in his eyes that it makes me sad at its absence from my own. This faith does not need converts, this faith does not need projected power point sermons, this faith does not need karaoke hymns, this faith does not need a live band, this faith only needs a bible and reader and sadly it does not even need a church. If Victoria Park Baptist Church wants to sell itself as a modern church for the modern age then that’s great but it should never forget that the Baptist church has been around since the 17th century and the timeless qualities of all religion has been faith. Faith is not judged by the number of followers or popularity as a social trend but to be judged by its own existence (how’s that for a soundbite of new age spiritual bullshit).