Wednesday 29 March 2006

Finally, Re:Hope re:viewed. And I promise to stop doing the re: thing as soon as I think the joke wears thin. Which might not be for a while, I’m afraid.

So yes, this was Sunday night’s church, whose website content I had a rant about earlier this month. It struck me as a fresh, new, controversial and completely leftfield sort of church, and I expected to either love it or hate it. Well, it was one of the best places I have been to in my church-search project so far.

The welcome was instant and genuine. The pastor, Brian, greeted me outside as I came in, took me inside and introduced me to various other people. Nearly everyone was young – either members of the leadership team or students, and there were no more than twenty-five or so in the church. Their building was an old school which had a lovely, almost Hogwarts, feel to it, and it was laid out with candles, decent seats, tables and food! Yes, tons of snack-type grub at the back over which people mingled and chatted before the service. It was a great way to get people talking and meeting, and I found myself being warmly greeted by people there, many of whom were quite new to Re:Hope themselves.

The service, far from the over-the-top, Hallelujah-overload, charismatic sort of gig I feared from an obscure new independent church, it was quiet, contemplative, relaxed, and utterly unintimidating. You could keep munching through the service; the songs were lively, meaningful and easy to sing (not with crisps in your mouth, admittedly); the band (piano, guitar and jembe drum) were talented but not too loud; and the visual aids through the computer and projector screen were useful. Brian’s sermon was excellent – sadly not backed up by powerpoint which meant I couldn’t now tell you what his main points were. However, it was practical, deep, engaging and humorous, and delivered by someone who clearly had a talent in studying and discussing the Bible. And he didn’t put the boot into Desmond Tutu once!

In an extended prayer and praise session towards the end, there was an opportunity to sit and think, go and stock up on nibbles, take communion over at the side, or pray with some of the leaders. It was refreshing that they operated the idea that you could pray or take communion if you wanted but not feel you had either to do or conspicuously opt out of. Like other aspects of the church – such as the food, friendliness and unintimidating layout – it was gentle and non-threatening. This was exactly the sort of church you’d want to bring a non-Christian to.

Above all though, from the service and from chats with folk afterwards, this was a church that was none of your fluffy, shallow, superficiality that many new churches go in for – it was deep, meaningful, focussed on the scriptures and developing peoples’s faith, and with an excellent young leader in Brian Ingraham – who blogs! From hearing more about the work they were doing in the local area and in their midweek groups, they really came over as a holistic Christian experience. More so than many well-established places.

Re:Hope is a sort of church plant crossed with a mission project. It was set up around a year ago by an American group, Christian Resource Ministries, whose aim is to train and send out Christian leaders to work in churches throughout the world. Many of the leaders of Re:Hope are Americans on placements from CRM. This would normally have alarm bells ringing in my head, and would make me think of freakishly pentecostal evangelical pastors with arrogant, right-wing views charging over here to set up churches under our noses and to tell us what we were doing wrong. But was not like that with Re:Hope: they seemed to be working with other churches in the area, were learning lots as they worked, and were bringing in a lot of local people (including quite a few drifting in from other churches) which can only enhance what they do.

Far from the weird, controversial apologists they came over as when I read their website, Re:Hope struck me as a well-led, well-planned, spirit-driven and full-bodied sort of place, and I was genuinely surprised, relieved and inspired by my experience. I hate churches that are either lethargic or over the top in any element, be it worship, welcome or vision… Re:Hope seemed to steer a neat course between the two on nearly all counts.

They definitely pass the cut of round 1, and if this was football, I’d give them a Champion’s League spot.

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