The Christianity factory
By Rachel Sloane
No hymn books or collection plate, but guitars, drums, amps, dancing in the aisles, flag-waving, clapping, cheering ... and not many Suffolk churches can claim they meet in an air-conditioned ex-factory where they're hoping to get 1000 worshippers!
The River of Life church in Felixstowe began when Pastors Terry and Juanita Baker felt God was calling them to establish a new form of evangelical worship. A free church is one not associated with any particular denomination of Christianity.
Pastors Terry and Juanita Baker
Beginning with just one convert soon there were enough people to begin Sunday services at Brakenbury Sports Centre. When it became obvious that a central office was needed, a café in the town centre began to serve a dual purpose as a church office and a coffee bar!
Finding a home
Two years later, in 2004, when the weekly congregation reached three hundred, the church had obviously outgrown the sports hall according to Pastor Terry Baker: "The Lord told us to buy a building with more than a thousand seats. And so we looked at the Spa Pavilion (the theatre in Felixstowe) and realised that it had 907 seats and we thought, Lord where is this building?
River Of Life church, Felixstowe
"We’d been to a church picnic and we brought a lady home to Adastral Close and we came past and there was a 'For Sale' sign just put outside this building. We walked in and we knew in the Spirit this was ours."
Prayer and a direct appeal for funds from members led to the deposit for the £700,000 purchase price being raised and the River of Life church found themselves the proud owners of the modern air-conditioned former Actaris factory with 24,000 square feet of prime real estate, an empty shell waiting to be fitted out.
I visited the church in the peak holiday season, when many families were away, but still a hundred or so people of all ages were gathering to sing, pray and worship, and around thirty children would leave the service mid-way to go into classes for Junior Church.
As you enter the light and airy building, the modern reception area of the previous owners is still in place, making it look more like an impressive office entrance than a religious building. Inside the main area a large coffee bar, with catering standard kitchen, is the venue for coffee after worship and Alpha course meals. Glass-sided rooms form the children’s classrooms, crèche, offices and meeting rooms.
In one of these rooms, before the main act of worship, a small group of members gather to pray and prepare for the service. The service itself begins with worship songs, accompanied by the waving of large coloured flags, many waving their arms or dancing and then there are prayers, bible readings and a sermon.
Worshippers are invited to come forward to bear witness to God and most of the congregation follow the proceedings in well-thumbed and highlighted Bibles which they've brought with them.
Fishing for new members
Everyone I spoke to stressed that they were not trying to take Christians from other local churches but were aiming to "grow" new Christians via their outreach work and to encourage lapsed Christians to return to a place of worship.
River Of Life cafe
The church is proud that they don't have a regular Sunday collection plate. If they need money for a specific project they appeal directly to the congregation via Gift Days and members believe in a tithing form of giving. 10% of their income goes directly to the River of Life and no-one, not even the pastors, are paid for their work.
The church is not far from its aim that the premises should be used for conferences for up to fifteen hundred people during the week, a facility that is currently lacking in the area.
And the ambition to have one thousand members? "I can see us achieving that within four years" says Pastor Baker.
It was a very different experience to a more traditional style of Sunday Christian worship, but I really enjoyed my morning in church and junior church ... and everyone seemed so happy!
Rachel Sloane presents a faith-based show on BBC Radio Suffolk every Sunday morning 6-9am.
last updated: 17/11/2008 at 14:23
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