03 July 2005

A London Journal—Day Three

The Metropolitan Tabernacle

The Metropolitan Tabernacle in London is a thriving evangelistic congregation. Anyone who thinks Calvinism is hostile to evangelistic zeal ought to come here and see firsthand what evangelistic Calvinism looks like.

In fact, this church goes against all the wisdom of modern church-growth experts. It's an inner-city church doing a fine job of reaching its own local community with the gospel. The neighborhood is about as diverse as you can imagine, comprising people from more than a half dozen cultures—African, Russian, Asian, Sri Lankan, Indian, Eastern European, English, and more. The congregation, including the diaconate, reflect that heterogeneity. Yet, as far as the style of worship is concerned, there's no accommodation to cultural diversity. The services are pretty much like they were in Spurgeon's day. Nothing is deliberately contemporary or entertainment-oriented. There are no choruses. There are no video screens. There are none of the accoutrements of "contemporary worship." Although all the church-growth experts continually insist such things are absolutely necessary, the conventional wisdom is belied by the reality of what is happening here. The centerpiece in every worship service is the preaching of the Word. It's straightforward and plain. And yet every service I have ever attended at the Tabernacle has been full to capacity.

Plaque from where Spurgeon died
This plaque was brought from Mentone, France, when the hotel where Spurgeon died was demolished. It's part of the Tabernacle's superb memorabilia collection.

Probably the most significant change in worship "style" since Spurgeon's time is the addition of an organ. But even that is kept carefully in check. It's there to keep tune and tempo on track; you won't hear any embellishments or creative harmonizing from the organist (who is a fine musician nonetheless). Dr. Masters once told me he likes the fact that English hymnbooks usually include the words only, because it encourages people to sing in unison. (That's very different from what I have heard in Wales, where people sing with great gusto in beautiful harmony; or in Scotland, where every man sings what is right in his own eyes.)

And yet, the music at the Tabernacle is hearty and robust and strangely moving. I've been here more than a dozen times, and I would estimate that only about 15 percent of their hymn-tunes are familiar to me. But the tunes are easy to learn, and the hymns are rich in theology and vivid language. Consider this first stanza from a hymn we sang tonight:

Extended on a cursed tree,
Besmeared with dust, and sweat, and blood,
See there, the King of glory see!
Sinks and expires the Son of God.

We also sang "Rock of Ages" to a stately tune that I presume is the original one Augustus Toplady's own congregation would have used. It was much more solemn and dignified than the trite tune most American congregations use—or used in those days long ago when we still sang that great hymn.

Anyway, I love the hymns and the worship here. I realize that puts me in a small minority, but the vibrant congregation here at the Met Tab is a living and very definitive rebuttal to those who think contemporary "style," rather than the power of God's Word itself, is the essential key to church growth.

I spoke today in the morning service on "The Limits of Temptation" from 1 Corinthians 10:13. Tonight Dr. Peter Masters gave a wonderful evangelistic message on Luke 11:27-28. He made good use of his own testimony as an illustration of how unbelievers use various bogus means to defend and preserve their own unbelief in the face of every good reason to believe. I thoroughly enjoyed and was blessed by every aspect of the day.

She's got a tikka to ride

More on London food: My friend Duncan, who is a doctor here in London, informs me that recent surveys show the most popular food in England is not fish and chips, not bangers and mash, not bubble and squeak—but chicken tikka masala?!!

There's no accounting for British tastes. If they like spicy Indian food, why are their own traditional foods so devoid of taste? Or is London's love for ethnic fare merely a rebellion against the generations of blandness in their diet? Seriously, there are kebab shops, Mediterranean restaurants, and spicy ethnic foods of every imaginable kind on every street in London. Not much that is truly American, though. Even Burger King's burgers are assembled by Ethiopians, who seem to think more is better when it comes to condiments. Darlene had a Whopper with cheese that was so dripping with mayonnaise that it proved to be inedible.

And speaking of chicken tikka, one of my longtime favorite London fast foods is a chicken tikka sandwich on a baguette from The Upper Crust, a sandwich franchise you can find in every train station in town. The one I had tonight, however, was laden with about a half cup of mayonnaise and twice more chutney than chicken. It was awful—at least as bad as Darlene's burger. I can't wait till Starbucks opens for breakfast. Strong coffee and a muffin is just what I need.

Speaking of Starbucks, there seem to be almost as many Starbucks stores as drunken Canadians in London. Sometimes you'll see two Starbucks within a block of each other. I'm not sure what that's about, since Brits still prefer tea to coffee. I guess the ubiquitous coffee places cater mostly to tourists. But seeing all the Starbucks helps me understand why Europeans are so worried about American economic imperialism. I'd feel the same way if The Upper Crust moved into Santa Clarita on every corner.

But the Cornish Pasty shops are still welcome.

See you tomorrow. It's a study day for me.


GeneMBridges said...

>>>>Sometimes you'll see two Starbucks within a block of each other.

I was an American living in London in the late 80's, and I remember "the Gap phenomen." The Gap was everywhere. Back in those days, hearing "Mind the gap" in the underground took on a completely different meaning!

Asaph said...

How about posting a copy of the music to the alternate Hymn tune to Rock of Ages? Would have loved to have heard the singing, I am sure it was most inspiring.

Mickey Sheu said...

nice pic

Unknown said...

For those of us unlikely to get to London, what is the presence of Spurgeonic memorabilia? Or to put it another way, how large is the Spurgeonic shadow that Pastor Masters has to minister in?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for taking the time to share your London days with us.

JMFjr said...

Wouldn't it be nice if my "calvanistic" church here in St. Louis, MO actually preached the Gospel every Sunday. Maybe we wouldn't have to lean on "A Case for Faith" sermons and "Good Father or Good Patriot" sermons most Sundays to grow our church. I root for good ol' Gospel preaching, and let the Lord God Almighty continue his work.

anoninva said...


This is cool! I am an American also visiting England right now, but not London. Went there in March and visited The Met Tab and Spurgeon's gravesite. But I have to tell you my friend, you must come to the Yorkshire Dales to experience real England! It is beautiful here and so much to see and do. And not quite so much "local color" as London.

Somebody mentioned pasties. Pasties, not like American pastries which are sweet usually, are meat filled pastry, deep fried. They are probably horribly fattening but they are good, depending on the filling. Some fillings can have a liver taste to me which I do not care for. Mostly it's kind of a mystery meat deal.

also the Hobnobs, plain and chocolate are good as someone said. Also the digestive biscuits - McVities - the plain chocolate (aka semi-sweet) ones. These are like graham crackers altho less sweet and come plain or chocolate topped. Thanks for the tip on the Galaxys will have to check this out. Their chocolate here is good too. Real chocolate here not the insipid-cocoa butter passing for chocolate- rancid-fake-chocolate that they have in the states.

Do not order a Pimm's with bits (fruit), Phil. I made that mistake after someone's tip, not realizing that Pimm's is a liquor. True it comes with fruit bits, is mixed with fruity punch and makes a refreshing drink, but as a teetotaler, one sip sent me into a tailspin! It came burning out of my nose. I knew either the fruit had gone bad a long time ago, or there were a few ingredients that I didn't know about....

Daniel Nolan said...

"African, Russian, Asian, Sri Lankan, Indian, Eastern European, English, and more.."

so true.. in fact, you could quite easily add Italian, Slovakian, Brazilian, Columbian, Bolivian, Australian, Canadian and Caribbean to the list. Sometimes as an English person I feel quite outnumbered :)

melodion said...

I'd imagine the reason that ethic food is so popular in London is because, well, most Londoners are ethnic.

Sola Fide said...

I had the privilege of worshipping at the Tabernacle two successive Sundays about 18 months ago, and had much the same reaction.

The messages were evangelistic and (in the morning service) intended to build up the believers, the congregation was wonderfully diverse, and the (mostly unfamiliar) hymns rich in meaning.

It was also a place where, as a visitor, I was welcomed more warmly (particlarly by the deacons) than in any church I have visited in the USA.

On a separate business trip to London, my customers told me that the "national" food of the UK was Indian cuisine, these days, and took me to an excellent Indian restaurant near London Bridge.

Terry Lange said...

Will we see a picture of the Tabernacle?

Or the memorabilia room?

Or of Peter Master's office?

Or of Spurgeon's gravesite?

Just curious... I enjoy reading this blog and do so everyday...

John Schroeder said...

Marvelous Post. I've linked to it here.

James Horgan said...

The jaunty tune to Rock of Ages is by Toplady himself!

Chicken tikka masala is an invention of an Indian chef for the British palate with a creamy sauce. It is authentically British!

A plain chocolate digestive or Jaffa Cake from McVitie's beats a Hobnob anyday.

James Horgan

Phil Johnson said...

Actually, the tune is called "Toplady," but it was written by Thomas Hastings, who wrote it in the mid-19th century, a few decades after Topady died.

The best biscuits are the Fox's ginger crunch creams. (But only if you don't count Walker's Shortbread, which is, technically, a product of Scotland.)