"Revisit Eden, feel the soil between your toes, be WILD." So reads a welcome poster on the door to St Michael's Church in Netherbeen, an inner city area of Coventry. This is my first encounter with WILD, an alternative worship group who have been meeting here since 2003.
There has been accusation that the UK alternative worship scene is an insular city-focussed affair that has no relevance to those who don't subscribe to the 'live the city, love the city' attitude. So when I heard of a group who aimed to recreate the wonder of the countryside in the inner city I thought it worth a visit.
Below the poster is a box of shoes and so in the spirit of the message I remove my trainers and socks and step into the building. It's clear that multisensory is the watchword here - I can hear recorded bird song, I can see some artfully-placed farming tools, the ground does indeed have a circle of soil to place your feet on and somehow even the authentic smell of farmland is present. Placing both feet in the soil I do wonder if the experience might have been a more enjoyable had it been a little less damp, but being a veteran of many alt.worship services I'm fully expecting a feet-washing ritual within the act of worship.
I follow the sound of birdsong into the worship area - as I get nearer it occurs to me that it might actually be feedback from the PA as four people in a corner are collectively jiggling wires coming out of mixing desk connected to an i-pod. I realise I've maybe arrived a little early so quietly sit down on one of bean bags which has been made from a rough hessian sack. Bales of hay mark out the worship area and straw has been scattered across the sanctuary area. Some has stuck to the soles of my muddy feet.
After a few minutes the wailing feedback is replaced by a loud blast of the Abba classic 'Dancing Queen' which is hastily replaced by a chill-out track and spoken apology from the DJ. At this point I'm spotted by one of the worship team who rushes over. "Er, hi there. Are you, er, ok?" he asks glancing worriedly at my feet. "Yes, fine." I reply and express my enthusiasm for the soil ritual. At this point it is explained that the poster was intended as a metaphor for walking in God's creation and the circle of soil might actually be something less desirable. "We brought in some sacks and straw bales from an innercity farm," the young man explains, "but I think we trod in some cow crap too. I'm really sorry."
A team member is dispatched to continue the half-finished job of cleaning up the church entrance (the spade and brush in the entrance turn out to be purely functional) and I'm asked where I left my trainers. It turns out the box of shoes outside was heading for a mission project in Africa and has just been been collected. Several phone calls are made to see if they can be returned. In the meantime someone has found a jay cloth and a bottle of washing up liquid, and I manage to clean up my feet the best I can.
The team introduce themselves as Will, Isobel, Louise and Dominic (the DJ) - the group's title is comprised from the first initial of their names. They decide to get started as they're not expecting any more visitors and Will and Isabel want to catch the 8.00 showing of the new Rambo movie if possible. Dominic locks the church door and turns off the lights before rushing back to his i-pod to cut off a Metallica tune. "It's good to create atmosphere" I comment to Isobel, who replies that the darkness is really a practical measure - if the local youths see the church lights on they usually throw bricks at the windows. As a mood of reverance is set I think I hear breaking glass and the sound of my car alarm but not wanting to disrupt the prayerful environment I put the thought out of my mind and focus on God.
The back-to-nature theme continues through the dimly-lit call to worship. A voice asks us to "breath deep of the country air and bare our chests before God". Everyone glances towards towards me nervously but I've already realised that this is most likely another metaphor.
The chill-out music is replaced with a down tempo house music track preceeded with a sudden snatch of Katie Melua, again with a mumbled apology from Dominic. The music is backing for a hymn composed by the group themselves. I jot down the lyrics:
Due to the impending movie (Isobel repeatedly points to her wrist watch during Will's extempore prayers), tonights service omits sharing bread and wine and instead moves straight to a blessing. Although it's one of the shorter services I've been to, it is understandable given the circumstances and the group's comittment is never in doubt - I'm told that they usually spend a total of six and a half hours on set-up and take-down of the worship environment. Including my mishap upon arrival, that makes almost 7 hours they've given to this act of worship - impressive by anyone's standards. They usually also run a full rehearsal of the service before anyone arrives although they confess that I am, in fact, the first person to ever arrive. "But that doesn't make us not missional," Louise points out and I heartily agree.
During the blessing we are invited to light a candle and place it on the bale of hay that is serving as an altar. We are asked to close our eyes and picture oursleves as seeds on a freshly furrowed field. At this point I hear the sound of running feet and sense an aroma filling the space - perhaps a particulalry musty incense. I open my eyes upon feeling a splash of (holy?) water in my face to see the team stood around a smouldering pile of straw. "That was a close one," comments Lousie holding an empty bucket. Isobel looks close to tears. I concurr it was indeed a moving act of worship.
The service ends with a loud blast of "You're in the army now" by Status Quo - apparantly an intentional choice of benediction.
The emerging church has come in for a lot of criticsm lately for placing style above substance and for following fashion rather than the call of Christ. But I leave the service (with a pair of borrowed boots from the sunday school dressing-up box) thinking that if the future of mission-focussed church in the UK is in the hands of the likes of WILD, then we can rest assured that a revival of massive proportions can only be just around the corner.