The church is not a building

I’ve not blogged for some time, but I have lots of questions running through my head. This is a bit of a splurge of thoughts that keep running into each other at the moment, I thought writing them down might help me make sense of some of them.

Across the Methodist Church, we have many buildings. Do we treat them as a resource to share God’s love in the world, or have we slowly over time become slaves to keeping them open rather than focussing on God’s mission in our communities outside of those walls?

Our buildings do define what we can do in a way because of their size and layout. As we do risk assessments and work out how we can work within our buildings, in line with the current social distancing measure, this will limit how many people can be inside them at any one time. Not touching anything unless it has been sanitised or left for an appropriate amount of time. Have you washed your hands or sanitised? Followed the prescribed route through the building, and done what is requested to make these spaces as safe as possible. I bet there will be church communities all over the world wishing they could clear their sights of their buildings and start them all over again to have them work with the guidance rather than being constrained by it (thought listings and covenants on properties can create an issue!)

Is there something that would be better? Open to the elements – creative roofing – heating – lighting, or its it better to use technology and not gather in person? To gather outside where there is plenty of ventilation, though could get cold and wet. How are we then the community of Christ, in relationship with Christ and each other to grow in discipleship? This whole situation creates so many different questions.

As we ease out of lockdown, what have we learned that we consider to be the most important aspects of worshipping and growing in relationship with Christ and each other? What should we bring with us?

Maybe a portable worship pack. Bring your own bible or smartphone or tablet. Bring your own chair – though obviously some may struggle for a variety of reasons to bring such things with them.

When I look at our church building today, my reflections are that we have made them places of comfort, and why not if you can! Many have hymn books and bibles that may not get used very often. Where possible, many have chosen to change pews or hard chairs for comfortable upholstered chairs and cushion on pews so we can comfortably sit and listen – or have a nap, depending on who is taking the act of worship.

A phrase that has been constantly used recently, especially in news articles saying churches have been closed or going to re-open. ‘The church is open – our buildings have been closed and many still are’.

Worship has continued in a wide variety of different formats. Those who were unable to physically gather in our buildings are now connecting with their local worshipping communities and continuing to worship together. Though, on reflection, it really shouldn’t take a pandemic to learn the value of keeping in contact with those who were not able to physically meet for worship before all of this, we have now experienced what it feels like, though we now realise we can use technology to engage in ways we never thought possible. I certainly never though I could set up a phone number that would play a weekly reflection if you dial in, something for those without computers, smart phones or tablets have reacted very positively to.

The early church met in homes. Wesley and early preachers often preached outside, or in homes – how many preachers and worship leaders would be happy to stand out in all weather today? I would, (I know… I’m strange!) it’s part of why I love Forest Church – worshipping in and with God’s creation, feeling that tangible connection with this wonderful world that God has created, from our gardens, public green spaces to church gardens, car parks or the middle of nowhere in the countryside.

We have a dilemma in the church, we have a lot of buildings but in many places we don’t have the resources (people or finances) to use them to the best of their ability. How many I wonder were only used a handful of times a month outside of weekly worship before lockdown? Many of our buildings do provide a wonderful witness and gift for community groups as they are able to use them. I wonder, how many of those groups will be able to return.

Could some of our buildings or the land gifted to us through generations of faithful people before us, become places that could benefit their communities through being reimagined to address social needs of today. Maybe they could provide housing for the homeless or for those whose own home is no longer a safe space for them. Could they become care facilities for those in need? Or a wide variety of other things that could address social issues in local communities. Are there charities, local council or community groups who the church could be partnering with at a national level which could then provide the support local churches need to explore what possibilities or what alternatives there could be rather than selling properties when we are no longer able to look after them – keeping the life and witness of the generations of faithful people who have witnessed and furthered God’s mission in those communities through the way those buildings are continued to be used in those communities? This is a subject that always makes me have lots and lots of questions – I just don’t have the answers…

A part of our Methodist DNA, is that we are made members to our local church. Does that church though need a building? Wether owned, leased, rented or used on the odd occasion for certain types of gatherings. For me, it is more about gathering somewhere within a community or gathered area. Gatherings of house groups, or community’s with similar theological views.

I think there is a need for buildings – wether owned or not. We still have a number of members who for them physical gatherings for worship is the norm (I consider myself in that category). We can gather for worship as dispersed communities, as we have had to recently, but it doesn’t fully fill that connection of relationship through online means, not for me at least.

During my own journey with Christ, I found there were times that I couldn’t engage with my local community other than on a Sunday. Bible study groups, fellowship groups, choir practice often happened during the week, normally on an evening. I ended up working a 2-10pm permanent shift. So everything except gathering for worship on a Sunday stopped. Each of us have different experiences, working patterns have changed, engaging in family life and our commitments has changed for many – this isn’t a new thing, but it’s something that hasn’t been addressed much, or at least we maybe haven’t challenged enough that their could be alternative ways for those who cannot gather at the traditional set time or day, and in a particular place.

My hope, as churches start to consider how and when physical gatherings are safe to return to, what do you want church to look like? Where will you meet? Do you go back to your building or reimagine what that gift could be to people in your local community. Are there other community building that you could support by gathering there, freeing up time on maintaining properties, finances and focussing on growing in relationship with Christ and using your time and resources to work out God’s mission in those communities.

What will worship look like? As a Methodist, not singing will be the hardest part for me. Maybe our church communities should be discussing ‘what have you missed’ and use that as a base to work out what you want worship to look like.

Contemplating all of this reminded me of a book I read years ago by Nick Page, called ‘The Church Invisible’, written in 2004. It was a story of being catapulted 40 years in to the future. An age where virtual reality is a lifestyle. At the time, it was an inventive look at the future of the UK church. If you have never read it, while it is fiction, I would recommend it. I read it back in 2005 and has in many ways broadened the way I question ‘what should church be’ and how we live out our faith in local and global communities. Here is the description of gathered worship and church structure.

Page 194
Page196

I find it challenging because it makes me question, what do we need to be church today? Or, do we just go back to who or what we were before?

Crowded streets and beaches scare me that all the sacrifices made over the last few months will be lost. That we become complacent about social distancing. That, all those who have stayed at home, been furloughed from work, those who have been instrumental in keeping us as safe and healthy as possible – all those who work in the emergency services and other key workers – those who have changed their working practices to reduce any exposure to themselves or others, those who have been separated from family and friends – such hard things to do, but what have we learned from all of this…? All I know is, we need to take time to reflect.

Does our church life and witness revert back, or do we allow this time to change and challenge our thinking and being. As you see, I have lots and lots of questions, we need to seek the answers together with Christ.

About localpreacherforkliftdriver

I am a Methodist Minister taking up a new appointment in the North Cheshire Circuit, September 2019, with pasoral charge of Tarvin, Kelsall, Rowton, Christleton, Mickle Trafford, Oakmere & Bunburry with Tiverton churches. Views are my own.
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1 Response to The church is not a building

  1. Neil says:

    A really thought-provoking article, asking a lot of important questions.
    Thanks!

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