The Silver Bullet of Gospel Growth – Not Having a Building

centrifugal-vs-centripetalI’ve been putting together the preaching programme for next term. And we’re heading back into the book of Acts. We won’t finish it this time round. But it’ll take us into uncharted territory as we progress through chapters 14-20. And some of that will be hugely encouraging as we trace the spread of the gospel through 1st Century Europe.

One of the things that I’ve had my eye on as I’ve read through these chapters is Paul’s missionary strategy for reaching people with the good news of the gospel. It seems as though he had a twofold strategy. He went first to the Jew and then to the Gentile. In other words, for as long as he was able he preached the gospel in the religious institutions of the day. He ran Christianity Explored in the synagogue while he could get away with it. But sooner or later that became unwelcome. And he was kicked out. But it didn’t matter. Paul then concentrated on taking the gospel to the irreligious; the Gentiles. To that end he was forced to use other buildings. If the gospel wasn’t welcomed by the religious establishment he’d have to use secular space. In Corinth he made much use of the house of Titius Justus, a God fearing convert. And in Ephesus he hired the Hall of Tyrannus (a person not a place).

There are clear parallels with our own situation at Christ Church Balham (CCB). We do not have a building. Our gospel ministry is not welcomed by some of the religious establishment. Historically the Diocese of Southwark and some local churches find our biblical  convictions and patterns of ministry offensive and have refused us use of their buildings (even though some of them are dying on their feet).

Our situation here at CCB is not that dissimilar to that faced by Paul. We meet in many locations. We meet in a (currently) ropey but in the fullness of time shiny new school hall in the morning, we meet in a dark and occasionally distracting pub function room in the evening, we meet in homes midweek for Growth Groups, we meet in a drama studio for ‘Knowing God’ and we meet in a curry house for the ‘One Life Suppers’.  That’s terrific. It gets the gospel out of the four walls of a church building and into the local community. And I have to keep telling myself that. Because as a recent post has  revealed, I occasionally hanker after a building, convinced that it’s the silver bullet to church growth. But it didn’t seem to be in Paul’s day. The gospel seemed to get along alright without the church’s need to call a place their own. And I have to keep telling myself that too! It’s no secret that I’d love us to have a permanent base in Balham. There are things that I think we could do that we can’t do at the moment. For example, I imagine ‘Boppers‘ would be easier with our own space in which to store the toys and a kitchen from which to serve an arresting array of homemade baking options! But I strongly suspect that one of the things that we’d continually have to fight against is the building-centric dynamic that would very quickly become the norm. I fear that we’d fall into a pattern of centring everything on getting people to come to our building rather jettisoning people out into the community. Our challenge is to continually remind ourselves that we’re meant to be a centrifugal church rather than a centripetal one (see diagram above for Physics lesson). In other words not merely sucking non-Christians into our building and church life but spitting Christians out from our building and church life. We must never become a holy huddle that retreat to the safety of our bunker to escape from the hostility of ‘the world’. If we ever have a building it’ll be nothing more than a base camp from which we strike out to explore the community around us and hit them with the good news of the gospel of peace.

There are implications to not having a building, of course. We’re unlikely to reach those who are keen for church to take place in church buildings. Obviously. And that’s ok. We can’t do everything. There are churches near us that can provide for people like that. St Nicholas’ Church in Tooting is a Church of England one that I wholeheartedly recommend. And Trinity Road Chapel is an FIEC alternative. But CCB can reach people who wouldn’t normally darken the door of a church building.

And that’s our challenge.

‘If you’re not here, please raise your hand!’

absenteeismWhat’s the single most important question to ask of your small group?

Who’s not here?

I was once accused of keeping a register for church attendance from a Christian man in our church family who clearly thought that was a bad thing. I started to defend myself (it’s my default response). But I caught my inner lawyer mounting my defence and thought ‘why?’ It’s true. I do keep a register. It’s not actual. It’s mental. Mental in that I keep the information in my head not mental as in I’ve lost my head. Just to clarify. And it’s not so much concerned with who’s there but who’s not there.

And I’ve made sure that we ask the same question at our weekly Monday afternoon staff and ministry trainees meeting. We review the previous week’s events. We talk about what happened on Sunday; what went well and where there’s room for improvement. And it’s always exciting to ask ‘who was new?’ But one of the key questions is to ask ‘who wasn’t there?’ I’m not sure anyone should go to a church where the ministry team haven’t got their eyes peeled for who’s away each week.

Of course, the people in our church family are grown ups. They make choices. Each week they make a decision about whether to come to church or not. I can’t make that for them. And they’re responsible for what they do. But we don’t always make great decisions. Sometimes we make bad ones. And, from time to time, we need others to talk some sense to us.

There can be lots of reasons why people aren’t there. They’re unavoidably busy. They’re on holiday. But sometimes it’s an indication that something’s not quite right, or something’s wrong. Perhaps it’s an indication that they don’t feel part of the church family, or the small group. Perhaps it’s an indication that they’ve got their prioties mixed up and small group is only ever fitted around the social programme. Perhaps it’s an indication of the kind of drift that the writer to the Hebrews warns us about (Heb 10:25). We’re not meant to give up the habit of meeting together. And so every week we’re either reinforcing or undermining the formation of a habit. The habit of going to church. Actually we’re reinforcing one of two habits; that of going to church or skipping it.

Christ Church Balham is not a large church. It’s not a small church either. But we’re at that size where even the staff can’t quite keep an eye out for everyone. And even though my mental register is pretty much up to date, people get in under the radar. That is, they sescape detection. And that’s alright if the reasons for being away are good. But what if they’re not? What if people are struggling? What if people are failing? What if people need help, or correction or rebuke. Not being at church or small group week after week can be an indication of that. And so it’s a question I want our small group Bible study leaders to be asking. I think it’s what you do when you love your church family.

Church with Life seeks Church with Building!

2015-12-24 09.34.08
Yours for £3.5 million!

Andrew Cinnamond’s Facebook post at Christmas pointed me in the direction of this BBC article.

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!


There’s Nothing Average About These Prices


Colliers Wood has never looked so attractive.

Words I never thought that I’d ever utter. But with the average house price in Balham costing £740,000, Colliers Wood (more former than the latter) is the only place any of our young workers will be able to afford to buy. It’s nuts. It really is. We’re now more expensive than Wimbledon. Friends of our recently moved from Balham to Walthamstow. And with the house prices being what they are and the Victoria Line links into Central London you can appreciate why they’ve done it.

I love a good map. And especially one with a bit of analysis thrown in. Graham Miller from LCM is my usual source . But Facebook beat him to it this time. And this one from eMoov is revealing.

There may be an upside. It might just stop this nonsense of the ‘forever’ house that Christians of a certain age begin to spout. We need to remind one another that we only have one forever house and it’s in the New Creation. If we think we start to treasure one here we might just never get to see the one in glory (Matthew 6:21). Just get a house that you can afford and that works, having already worked out which church family you’re going to be a part of. But we don’t want to get into the mindset that begins to think that we’re building heaven on earth.

With my Christ Church Balham hat on this analysis is a little discouraging. But it confirms what we’ve thought for a while; that most of our young workers won’t be living here for ever. And so our principle ministry priority has to be to train them for service elsewhere.

With my Antioch Plan hat on  it’s going to make planning Cohort 2 an interesting time. There’s something to be said for planting churches in places where people can afford to stay! Trying to grow a church with ‘churnover’ is a like trying to fill a leaking bucket.


Evangelism on Fire

Fire TriangleEver heard of the fire triangle?

For a fire to burn it needs three essential ingredients: fuel, oxygen and heat. If you remove any one of those three elements then the fire goes out. Fire extinguishers work by removing one or more of those three from the equation. The fire blanket smothers the fire by removing the oxygen. A CO2 extinguisher cools the fire by drastically reducing the heat. And a foam extinguisher isolates the fuel. As you can see, my time in the Combined Cadet Force wasn’t wasted!

For a fire to make progress you need each one of those three elements. In the same way, for a church to make evangelistic progress it needs three essential ingredients: good news to proclaim, a messenger to share it and an audience to engage with it. Take any one of those three elements away and the fire goes out. Where do you think that your church is weakest?

Are you clear on the gospel? Are you good to go with the gospel? And are there people willing to listen?

Where do you think you’re weakest?

For me, it’s the audience bit. I know the gospel. And I’m willing to share it. But I have become aware that although we know and are known by lots of people in and around Balham, we know far too few at anything more than a superficial level. We simply haven’t invested as we would have wanted to in deep non-superficial relationships. There are lots of reasons for that which I won’t bore you with. But we’re determined not to make those reasons excuses. Excuses won’t ignite the evangelistic fire that we long to see burning in our lives.

But the summer offers lots of opportunities to strengthen the audience component. We’ve got more time. There’s opportunity. And lots of the church events that usually fill up our diaries simply aren’t happening. The church programme is considerably lighter than usual. And so it’s a great time of year to be able invest in non-superficial relationships with friends that God has brought into our lives. So why not host a BBQ and have both those from your small group Bible study and your workplace along? Why not go cycling with a bunch from church as well as others who also love time spent on two wheels? Why not take a longer lunch break with a colleague in the park? Why not organise a game of frisbee on the common and then share post match analysis with a drink at the local? Why not go for a summer walk along the coast with a gang from church and friends you’ve made at your spin class? Why not have a picnic in the countryside with the family of your son or daughter’s best friend from school? The possibilities are seemingly endless.

I take it that we all want the evangelistic fire to burn bright in our church. And so I wonder whether we could all spend the summer paying more attention to the audience component.

My Sunday Highlight – Before it’s Happened!

StreathamAll things being equal (ceteris paribus if my A Level Economic memory hasn’t failed me in the same way that it did in the actual exam), I already know what my Sunday highlight will be this week. The Lord willing. Somewhat unexpectedly, it has to do with Streatham. Now what were the odds of that?! But we’ll come to that in due course. First, an extended metaphor …

Last weekend Rosslyn, the kids and I were away with old university friends in Birmingham. It was a great time with great mates. Since we were so near, I decided that on the way back home we’d stop in and have a look at the place where the gang of us had met, mucked around and matured. And studied. We couldn’t have picked a worse day to visit the University of Warwick. Hundreds of parents in cars rammed to the gunwales with duvets, kettles and their kids’ favourite posters were dropping their offspring at their new residences. I’m not sure who was most anxious; the parents or their sons and daughters. No doubt the event was marked with the obligatory picture on Facebook. And one would imagine that the previous evening meals had been shared and words said to mark and celebrate the passing of a child into independence. Significant moments for a family.

On Sunday at CCB, we’re going to commission Streatham Central Church. Whilst the parallels aren’t exact (I’m not planning to drive Alex Lyell the Church Planter to his new digs, I haven’t given him a fully charged mobile phone to call me when he gets into trouble and I haven’t sat him down for a long talk about the perils of peer pressure and the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption), there are nevertheless similarities. This church plant, conceived within the loins of Christ Church Balham (now there’s an image to play with) is about to enjoy their independence. No longer will the plant be just an idea; a hope for the future. It’s about to become a reality. And we thought we should mark that in an appropriate manner.  Not this time with a celebratory meal at Pizza Express (though I did suggest this) but by commissioning those that are going and appointing Jon Stidwill as co-elder. And then on Sunday evening we’ll interview Alex about the plant so that we can pray for this work in its earliest days.

We’ve asked the whole church family to join us. This is a family celebration, even for the newest members at CCB. We want Streatham Central to know that they go with our encouragement, our support and our tears. This is a significant moment for our church family. I’ll let you know how it goes.