Thursday evenings are usually full of a variety of conversations for us and last night was no different. Amongst the smattering of awkward dating stories we also discussed the role and purpose of the buildings we call “church”. Quite timely, in fact, as Giles Fraser had that day published his latest “Loose Canon” in The Guardian on that very matter.
It initially seemed to us, when discussing what an ecclesial community actually is, that the complexity of modern day Church requires a “meeting place” more than ever before. We are fortunate, particularly in much of Western Europe and the UK especially, to sit in pews and rows of chairs alongside those who theologically share nothing in common with us other than declaring Christ as Lord. In the likes of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, this is especially noticeable when people from all walks of life, vocations, sexualities, genders and ethnicities walk through the door on a daily basis, all of whom have their own individual ideas as to “what God and so what?” There is much to be said in this context, for a building which allows all those people to be together in one place at the same time.
In a day when you can be an Environmentalist Feminist Liberal who has a thing for Queering Scripture but also a Traditional Evangelical with a thing for a Literal Interpretation, is a sense of unity found in a building needed more than ever to bind us together; to bring cohesion to the rich tapestry of diversity?
Among other things, we discussed what it means to live out “Church” (with a capital C) in our communities. How we often become waylaid with the necessities of building management, bums on seats on a Sunday morning and the internal dialogue of endless committee meetings. These distractions, which at times may seem necessary, can prevent us from being authentically “Church”.
So where lies the balance? In a world increasingly given (and needless to say, rightfully so) the liberty of freedom of thought and expression and where individual opinion is valued and appreciated but where we become confined and restricted by our costly and often exclusive buildings, how do we fully live as “Church”? An ecclesial body of people, worshipfully orientated and focussed towards Christ but acting, living and being in our wider communities?
Perhaps then it isn’t about what building we’re in and why, but rather our intent and focus beyond that. If we happen to have a beautiful heritage building at our disposal but the only reason we desire to retain it is that it is a beautiful heritage building, then our focus is clearly in the wrong. If our beautiful heritage building is empty, broken, cold and unwelcoming – why do we struggle to keep it?
However, if we find ourselves in buildings alive with community, buildings which are safe spaces, worshipfully orientated towards Christ and not themselves the subject of worshipful orientation, then perhaps we have use for such buildings, regardless of how pretty they are.
It is in my humble opinion that our buildings should never be about how many people we can retain, how many people we can squeeze in on a Sunday, but instead how many people can we send out? If we are bringing in only to hoard then I say every church should be sacked, robbed of their monetary worth and distributed to those in need. Our buildings only have worth above their material value when they seek worth above that material value – when worship, discipleship, fellowship and yes, and I use this word tentatively, even evangelism take priority and those we bring in are sent out to minister to the world around us.