So much more than a building – the importance of Christian presence

 Ruth Smith concludes her blog series about a declining church – and the need for new thinking and new ways.
A church building with a for sale sign

I recently had an interesting exchange which reminded me how easily language and how we use it can cause confusion and disagreement. How careful we need to be when trying to introduce new thinking and new ways to those we want to convince. During this conversation I raised my concerns about the drift towards closing churches in Durham’s urban villages. I wanted to challenge whatever rationale lies behind it and suggest a different approach to the issue of ‘unviable’ churches in poor areas.

Immediately the defensive hackles went up: the person I was talking with began to explain how some churches needed to be closed as they cost too much to maintain and are a drain on limited resources. I quickly realised what I had done, and interrupted. Yes, I agreed, some church buildings – probably more than we dare admit – should be closed, and quickly. But to clarify, what I meant when I used the word ‘church’ was ‘congregation.’ In buildings, in the way the word was originally used in the New Testament.

More precisely, what I mean by church in these places where there is often just a small number of people gathering to worship and somehow keep their church afloat, is community. My argument is that if we begin honestly to see church as community rather than building, there is no reason why it ever should become unviable.

Of course there is a lot of work to do to get there. We all get attached to our ‘places’ be that our homes, schools, holiday retreats… churches. They give us amongst many other things a sense being secure and settled. We are comfortable. We belong. There seems to be something in our psyche that yearns for these things and once we have them we are loath to let them go.

With churches it becomes more complicated still. We are taught that our church is ‘the house of God’ and we go there to worship Him and meet with his people, our church family. Over the years we invest a huge amount of ourselves there: not only our money but our time, our energies, our gifts and talents. If we have a churchyard we may have relatives and friends buried there. Certainly others do: they are special places always to be respected and conserved. These are sacred places, consecrated ground.

On top of that, many of our churches are old and historic. They have heritage value and are often put on the listed buildings register. Maintaining them becomes even more urgent – and expensive. We become subject to an ever-widening range of rules and regulations.

More and more it feels like ‘our church’ is out of our control.

And yet understandably many of us don’t want to let go, even when things get so bad there is no alternative. The few who may be willing are aware it’s not that easy. If our church closes down, what then? Where would we go for our services? Where would we do church? What will become of us?

One of the most stressful events we experience is moving house. However exciting it may be, it’s hard work, from deciding it’s time to move (or being told we have to) to finding and acquiring a new place, arranging the removals, packing, then moving and unpacking at the other end. There’s more to it than that, though, especially when we move to another area. We leave behind our friends, maybe our family, our street and neighbourhood and everything that is familiar to us. We lose, if you like, our community. We go through a kind of bereavement process: adjusting and settling is seldom straightforward. We may question whether we’ve done the right thing. If our new neighbours and colleagues and church are welcoming it helps. But it takes time to begin to feel we belong once again.

It’s no different when we move church, especially when we are feel we are given no choice. When churches close there is a presumption that their members will start worshipping at another. Sometimes there are suggestions as to where they should go, usually to a neighbouring church so they don’t have to travel too far. But if you are dependent on public transport, as many people are, getting there is problematic, especially on a Sunday and in the evenings. And however close they are geographically, these other churches are not just ‘other churches’: they are other communities, with different schools, different shops, health centres, public services and amenities. People have different neighbours to you.

Of course being connected to neighbouring communities can be a positive thing. It’s good to know that as Christians we belong to a wider Church then just our own. But the wider church is not our primary faith community. The proposed church may have a different tradition to the one you’re familiar with. It does things differently. It isn’t ‘home.’ Both community and church are places where there has previously been little real connection.

Why should it be expected that you should go there and be content?

I wonder how many people in this predicament choose not to make the effort to go to an unfamiliar church in a neighbouring but alien community. I suspect more than we would think. They lose their church and the Church loses them. Equally distressing is that their community loses its church: and I don’t just mean its church building. There ceases to be in this urban village, social housing estate or inner city, any visible, tangible, identifiable Christian community. Once that presence becomes absence, how is it ever to be revived?

The Church of England is historically committed to have A Christian Presence in Every Community. It’s open to debate as to whether or not that is a realistic aspiration in the 21st century. My belief is that it becomes more achievable if we define what we mean by ‘church’ more clearly and begin to shift our perspective from identifying church as building to church as people.

A change in our use of language would go a long way to help us towards new thinking and new ways. Using the word ‘congregation’ is one step we could take: congregations are made of humans, not stones or bricks. Even better, especially in difficult areas where churches are struggling and congregations hardly exist, introducing the term, the concept and then the practice of ‘Christian presence’ would begin to open up new possibilities for Christians who find themselves in the cul-de-sac of ‘unviability’ facing closure and redundancy.

None of this is easy. There still needs to be a time of supported transition and adjustment as people lose their buildings and so much that is dear to them. But I suspect that they would be far happier to move into a new ways of understanding what church really is, and new ways of being church in their own familiar places and within their own communities.

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About Livability Community Engagement

Part of Livability, a national Christian disability and community engagement charity. We are an enabling network, tackling barriers in society to make community livable.
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One Response to So much more than a building – the importance of Christian presence

  1. Bernadette Askins says:

    Ruth’s article is very insightful. I have observed that what often seems to happen is that decisions are delayed and dragged out about closing buildings and the people from the congregation who have energy move to another church, leaving behind a rump of those who want to try to preserve their building and the very elderly. There are many precedents for congregations sharing buildings (as Local Ecumenical Partnerships) , building relationships and developing a common life as the Christians in that place. It requires strong leadership by the clergy, supported by the wider church – and it helps if there are already good ecumenical relationships between the local churches.

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