When engaged in the discussion topic 'what makes church (and church services) valid' I often find that once we've got the numbers thing out of the way the conversation turns to location.
'Look at the Roman Catholics,' they cry, 'They've got it right because they only have a few church buildings, in fact there's only one in our town and they expect those who come to travel! That's what we should do - reduce the number of church buildings and let them travel!'
As true as this might be for the faithful in our town where there is one in the centre and another which serves the towns and communities to the North. There are indeed but two for a large number of Catholic church members. Now take another place I know of where there were once seven RC church buildings and some they will have reduced this to but two!
C Peter Wagner used to say that the ideal was a flourishing Christian community (which for the sake of this consideration we will call 'church') in every community and many street corners. This idea that we need to rationalise the number of church buildings based upon proximity might be persuasive to and for some BUT there are further considerations - spiritual, missional, sociological, practical and human.
A large conurbation near to us has many church buildings and these are obviously near to one another - some only streets away from the next. The thinking is that closing one building merely results in believers having to walk a further five or ten minutes to the next and there is a logic to this But once we move on from this as a paper exercise and bring people into the equation we also need to factor in the pain too. Other parameters like churchmanship and membership, for not all churches are community churches, increase the factors that need to be considered and satisfied.
PEOPLE & CHURCHMANSHIP
As much as I can understand the location argument and 'short additional distance' caveat the reality is that those who are high church may not find the nearest church building as a venue for their style of church. The same goes for those orthodoxy versus liberal church and the choirs and central church versus worship bands and a more charismatic style.
People will gather with those who are similar to them, this is the reality (and attraction) of homogenous church. So to decide that St Blog's can close with the members moving to St Dingbat's is great on paper but will serve to lose some members from the losing church. Some will cease churchgoing completely whilst others will travel to a similar expression of church and the others, who do go to St Dingbat's will either settle or make it feel more like their own home and this in turn will cause St Dingbat's to lose members too!
Closing churches means the end of churchgoing for many and yet, as one higher placed person told me, 'This is a price that needs to be paid for sustainability!'
SOCIOLOGICAL & MISSIONAL
Now we have a real issue before us. We talk of Church as being light in dark places and yet it is in some of the very darkest places that the presence of the Church is in greatest danger of being extinguished. The mission of the Church is to take Christ into the difficult places and if doing this is costly to the whole body, then so be it.
This does not mean that a church, plant or congregation should not seek to 'pay its way' but it does mean that the sending church needs to accept the responsibility of funding (spiritually and financially) the presence of a church in the community. That said, with some of the building, perhaps the time has come to knock the blessed thing down and replace it with a modern community facility in which the Church resides alongside others (more later).
In response to the first post on this issue, Jante responded with a question relating to a small rural community with small numbers residing and 10% of that population coming to church. This is sure to be an unsustainable church in terms of finance but is quite like to be both sociologically and missionally valid. The problem is that we appear to be placing too much emphasis on money and not enough on mission and yet, as ever, bill have to be paid and we cannot be naive enough to think that money doesn't matter.
Working in West London we wanted to do some stuff to the church building we were in. The reason for this was to make it a more inviting and useful building and to render it 'fit for purpose' for the Church of today.
The result was that the Victorian Society - a bunch of people who had no interest in Church as the Bride of Christ and saw it as merely a pretty building with links to some Victorian hero of mine - pointed their toes and conservation and preservation won the day and the building remains useless to this very day! My response was to offer them the building and let them face the costs of roof repairs, masonry renovation and preservation and the like. 'Let them have the Blessed thing,' I cried, 'It's no use to us and since they want it so much, let them pay for it!' But of course whilst they wanted to dictate about the inside, they neither wanted to come into the place nor take responsibility for it.
We need to have some courage and offer what we have to the community (for along with cure of souls comes curator of the community history) and let them pay for the much loved building they want to fight for if we speak of closure. That landmarks will vanish is a sadness but those who want them most appear to also be least willing to pay for their continued existence.
SPIRITUAL (oh yeah)
Truth is that the Church is a spiritual body and the church building is merely a meeting place for it. The number of times I hear someone say, 'We don't need buildings, they're an encumbrance - let's close them and do our services in the local school, sport's hall or whatever - bin the building!" and there is something of merit in what they say. Mind you they've never planted a church or run services from building other than a proper church building have they?
They can't have for having done the school and hall church stuff I know that arriving ninety minutes before a service and lugging stuff up six flights of stairs and setting up and doing the service and then packing up and carrying everything back down six flights of stairs and loading it back in the vehicles and taking it home and unloading and storing the stuff and everything else that goes with not having your own building -IS A PAIN!
The Church is the spiritual body and it should be in a place, in a building that is the (or one of THE) focal point of the community. The doors should be open and the reason for its presence clear because of the spiritual: The calling to be Church in that place; the desire to be Church in that place; the commitment of the membership to be Church in that place and it that isn't obvious then the people need to be grounded in the Gospel and mobilised or the doors shut.
Church is not a hobby, neither it is part-time or something for us.
Church is about populating heaven and Kingdom thinking and it we don't want to live in the reality of that then we need to live in the reality that we don't need, no we can't afford, to keep lights on and buildings open.
Church is more than bank balances - it is about transforming lives.
Church is more than two hours on a Sunday - it's about coming and talking about what Christ has done in, and for, and through us during the other one hundred and sixty-six hours of the week.
So here we are - twelve minutes of mad splurge onto the screen in front of me. The telephone rang whilst typing and I was asked if I was looking for a move as a friend had a vacancy coming up near to them. Nice to know someone wants me but until God say otherwise here I stand, for I can do no more ;-)
ps. No one else's agendas here though - just my madness. Discuss it here or at cavedwellers.co.uk