It’s worth a read.
It’s an old chestnut. But this is the time of year for roasting chestnuts. So let me have a go!
For thirteen years Christ Church Balham, the church of which I am the Senior Minister, has operated as a church without owning a building. We rent. From Chestnut Grove School in the morning and from the Bedford Pub in the evening. For midweek venues for Balham Boppers, our Mums and Toddlers group and for Knowing God, our young workers Bible Study groups, for Christianity Explored or for our One Life Suppers (events at which we think about common objections to the Christian faith), we’re always on the look out for suitable venues. There are upsides and there are downsides to not having our own building.
The upside is that I never have to sit on any committee and neither does anyone else at CCB to discuss the maintenance of our buildings. And we’ll have a thermometer outside our church building. As upsides go, it doesn’t get much better than that.
The downsides are that we don’t have a building. And, after a while, that limits what you can do. And it can place a glass ceiling on your growth. It’s probably true to say that the churches that have grown most within Co-Mission are those that have been able to secure buildings. There’ll be other factors, of course. But it’s surely no coincidence. It’s true that churches like Hillsong and others have grown massive without their own building. But they’re trying to do something very different to us. We’re not trying to gather a crowd in quite the same way that they are.
For three glorious years we rented a light industrial unit in central Balham. It was used primarily as office space. But it was large enough to play host to Boppers. And our Friday night Primary School Youth Group ‘Dangerous Club’ could do their thing in it as well. And then the landowners decided to knock it down and build four flats in its place (because what Balham needs more than anything is more one and two bedroom flats at the expense of community space!) Balham is in danger of becoming a post graduate dormitory rather than a functioning place where people interact with one another outside of restaurants, pubs, bars or coffee shops.
The BBC article poses the question ‘should the church be into people or building’? It’s a fair question. And the answer is ‘yes’. We should be into both. But not in the same way and not to the same degree. We’d be naive to say that buildings don’t matter. And ultimately I think we should be into buildings because we’re into people.
There are things that we can’t do as a church because we have no building. ANd that affects people. It’s hard for us to run things midweek. And so it’s harder to have a presence in the community. We’re a congregation with lots of life but no building. Around us lots of churches have buildings but no life. And yet they keep going. They mask their unsustainability by hiring their space midweek to private nurseries. I have no issues with churches using their buildings to hire out to community groups. That can be a terrific thing. It can also be a useful source of revenue. One friend is doing the same with ‘his’ building so that they can fund an extra gospel minister on the team. That’s sensible. But they’re growing and they’re planning for growth. It’s adventurous entrepreneurial thinking. Too many churches round us are in decline. Probably terminal decline. And they’re simply delaying the inevitable. They may be arresting the closure of their church but it’s preventing them from facing facts and asking the hard questions. Their church is not growing, quite the opposite and there are reasons for that. And they may never grow again without fundamental and painful change. But one of the best things that a church like that could do for the gospel is give their building away to a church that’s growing. I can’t imagine it will be easy. But it’s been done before. And the gospel can flourish. Out of death, life. I read something about that somewhere!
I’m into buildings because I’m into people. I think we can better help people through a permanent presence. But I don’t have the foggiest how to get one! And though I keep a look out, although I’ll occasionally have frustrating and fruitless conversations with churches about their premises, although I pray on and encourage others to do the same it’s not going to stop us from our core business of growing disciple making disciples of Jesus Christ in and for 21st Century London. Securing that as a lasting legacy matters so much more than securing a building.
But it would be wonderful to see what God might do through us were He to give us a building. The one at the top is a deconsecrated Church of England building if anyone has a spare £3.5 million to give us! We’ll look after it, I promise!