A large low-rise building looking quite unlike a traditional church closer to business premises or an upmarket warehouse. Off the foyer is a bookshop, a cafe and a guest lounge. The auditorium is large, with state-of-the-art sound and lighting gear.
They have three locations in Melbourne and are about to launch one in Bangkok, Thailand. The campus I visited is called "City" although it is located several kilometers away from Melbourne's central business district. This location ministers to the Richmond housing estate (see below). As a community they seem to consist very largely of bright young people, some teenagers but mostly in their 20s, of many different ethnic backgrounds, well-dressed and "cool." They do, however, have ministries aimed at young as well as "mature aged" adults. Please see their website for a listing of their many ministries far too many to mention here!
Richmond is an old industrial inner suburb of Melbourne, although the factories have nearly all closed and the poorer residents have either died or moved away, and the monied class has moved in to renovate or replace the housing stock. It would have been social death to live there in earlier days, but now the real estate prices are high and the shops are fashionable. The Richmond housing estate still exists, though, striving to create a livable, well-connected community for a diverse and sustainable mix of residents in an area where affordable accommodations are scarce. In addition to St Ignatius Church, with its soaring spire, another nearby "religious institution" is the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the "religion" being AFL football more than cricket.
David Doery, senior pastor, and Sam Lim, identified on their website as "audacious pastor" (they call the age 27-35 group the "Audacious Group" young professionals, postgraduate students, singles and couples). Others also spoke, including one of the singers and a woman who I'm pretty sure was Sally Doery, wife of senior pastor David and described as "soul sister pastor" i.e., pastor for women.
What was the name of the service?Service.
How full was the building?
Nearly full 1000 or so people. The pastor said that 1200 had attended the recent Good Friday service.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Two young women greeted me on the footpath as I came in, and two more in the large foyer, and I spoke to them for a few minutes. Then a man also came up to me. All this was, of course, better than no welcome, but I felt it was overdone. Some people would be scared off.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. Comfortable padded pew.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The doors to the auditorium were opened only a couple of minutes before the service began, but the atmosphere in the foyer was bright and chatty. Inside it was a bit like waiting for a rock concert to begin, with young musicians milling about the stage twanging guitars. All very lively, though hardly conducive to meditation.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Hi. Great to see you all today."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
No books. The words of hymns were projected onto three big screens, along with the names of the main speakers, church news, etc.
What musical instruments were played?
Keyboard, three guitars, and drums.
Did anything distract you?
I found the very dominant musical element of the service to be distracting, since it was not my kind of music, but the large congregation obviously loved it. No other distractions.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Not happy clappy but mildly charismatic, with many arms held high at times. It was also slick and seamless, with theatrical lighting and sound amplification. The music was nonstop except for part of the sermon. During the rest of the sermon, a guitar played softly.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – I first heard this dramatic style of preaching from Billy Graham during his first Crusade in Australia in 1959, and I must say David Doery does it well, without as much American hype as Graham. He had good personal stories and several key biblical verses, and I would say he engaged his audience well.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Without the resurrection of Christ, the Christian faith is dead. By letting Jesus into our lives more and more, we allow "resurrection life" to lift us from all our problems.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
There were four singers and five instrumentalists on stage, all sounding professional or close to it, to my ears, with the big crowd joining in the many hymns. This was the core of the service in a way, though not to my taste.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Apart from the sermon, some of the other short talks (about six in all) were quite simplistic and bland. Things like: "Jesus is with us here today! Can you feel his presence? Louder I can't hear you. Can you feel his presence? Yes? God wants you to be here today." And so on, all over music, and just meant to be atmospheric talk of no particular significance, I thought.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
One man, then another, virtually pounced on me to invite me to the guest lounge for something to eat and drink, but after 90 minutes in church I had had enough and did not want to accept the ardent invitations to stay behind. Probably there would have been some pressure to join one of the many groups or courses.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I believe there would have been a nice lunch served in the guest lounge.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – I'm too old to get into this pop-style worship. I like contemporary hymns as in Together in Song (the Australian hymn book), but not these songs. I am used to and like a more reflective kind of worship. This service had not a pause anywhere, and music over everything. I found it anti-meditative. I also disliked the complete lack of windows in the church – there was no connection with the outside world. Moreover, there was no altar, no cross, or indeed anything to look at that was traditionally Christian.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, since there were 1000 or so young people declaring their love for God and Jesus. If this is the shape of future Christianity or one aspect of it, I welcome it, though I see its limitations.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The preacher with his "resurrection life" theme.