Inside the warehouse of God - The Edge Church, Aztec West
David Clensy visits the city's newest church – which has been created from an industrial warehouse unit
AT first glance you may be forgiven for thinking it's a warehouse unit – after all, in the middle of Aztec West, one of the region's most sprawling industrial estates, that's what you would expect to find.
When you walk inside your senses are skewed. It's certainly not a warehouse. The chic decor and plush furnishings make you think it may actually be a hotel.
Then you walk through the lobby and into an auditorium – complete with high-tech stage and state-of-the-art theatrical lighting. It must be a concert venue? But you would be wrong again.
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In fact, we have just walked into the region's newest church. There are a few subtle giveaways – the single word on the front of the drum kit is "Jesus", and the more observant visitor will have spotted the words "hope, truth and love" like a corporate motto embedded into an over-sized piece of wall art.
But other than these two visual clues, there is nothing here to suggest you're in a church – this certainly isn't a place of stained glass windows and crucifixes.
The Edge Church, officially opened last month, after a £200,000 renovation of the former insurance company office building, with all the manual labour involved coming free of charge from tradesmen within the growing 400-strong congregation of worshipers.
The church is what is known as "a plant" – a seedling church "planted" by the Edge organisation, which has existed in Australia for the last 18 years.
Founded in Adelaide by pastor Danny Guglielmucci, the Edge is Pentecostal in origin, and its worship style owes much to American evangelism, with modern rock and pop music, performed live, replacing traditional hymns.
But its foundation owes much to a businesslike approach to religion – with the business world invited into the religious community, which has allowed the organisation to grow swiftly, thanks to a number of major donations from business leaders – including a single donation of $640,000 in its early days in Australia.
Guglielmucci's son, Michael Guglielmucci – also a pastor with the church – shocked Australians in 2008, after admitting he had lied for two years about having terminal cancer. Bafflingly, he put the deceit down to "an addiction to internet pornography", which had turned him into a compulsive liar.
But the church continued to expand Down Under, even after the scandal.
The organisation has been planning to "plant" a church in the UK for a number of years, as part of its evangelising drive – and Guglielmucci is believed to have chosen Bristol partly because of the city's history of non-conformism, and also because a number of Australian families who had previously been connected to the church had settled in Bristol and South Gloucestershire.
The new church's minister, Jason Gowland, was asked by Guglielmucci to consider moving to Bristol with his wife and three young children to set up the new church.
"We certainly hadn't been thinking about moving to the other side of the world," the 40-year-old tells me. "It did come quite out of the blue, but we discussed the idea, and decided it would be a nice challenge to take on."
So five years ago the family moved to Portishead, and began to bring together a congregation without a church building.
"We slowly grew, from essentially being my family and a few other families who had moved out here from Adelaide, and the congregation built up as we integrated into the community.
"Over the five years we must have met in every community centre, hotel conference suite and school hall to hold our Sunday service, but the idea of opening our church – or campus as we call it, is something we've been aiming for all the way through."
In Australia the rapidly growing denomination has developed a model of forming churches out of former industrial buildings – often locating themselves in non residential environments – industrial and commercial areas, and in one case a red light district – in order to "better serve the community where they are most needed".
"We wanted to be near Patchway and Filton, because the levels of social deprivation are quite severe here, but it tends to be an area that gets ignored.
"But an industrial unit meant we could find a building that would give us plenty of space for all the activities and worship sessions we plan to develop. Its also important for our church to be at the heart of the business community.
"We aim to go back to a fundamental Christian ethos of serving others, whatever their religious convictions – so our main aim is to serve the community around us.
"We're going to have a creche here, which will be useful for the thousands of people who work in the business park, but we will also have a range of space for community meetings and social groups, as well as a series of rooms where we will hold counselling sessions, with qualified counsellors at hand, for members of the community undergoing problems.
"A big part of what we're about as a church is coming together as a congregation and serving others – so the idea that all this work has been done by tradesmen from within our own congregation is important to us. It's a sign to people that we're serious about our beliefs and about our conviction to help others in the community."
The church has the building on a ten-year lease, but is currently in talks with landlords about the possibility of buying the property.
"We're here in Bristol for the long term," he says. "We want to make a commitment to the people of the city, so that in time people may feel they can belong to the church community too. It's important that people can belong before they believe – we let people find their belief in our religious convictions entirely in their own time."