Friday, 19 June 2015

Church Growth strategies: 'Change (or move) the building'

Working on Stanley Hauerwas' premise that:

'Church growth strategies are the death rattle of a church that has lost its way.'

We started our journey looking at some of the church growth thinking before us with the issue of 'worship' and the bus moves on today to consider the building we meet in. As we do I have to say that I am still surprised at the number of people who confuse the living stones that are Church with the bricks and mortar that is the church building - and sadly this is more than something of a problem with descriptors or syntax!

I recently visited a location where the original rural community had dwindled and almost died away almost as quickly as the new build housing developments had risen from the fields that once supported the area. No longer was the hand being put to the plough but to the world of commerce and because of this the new inhabitants of that place were generally commuting into the nearest cities as a new dormitory community was formed.

The problem was that the community was served by lovely old, yet small, rural churches. You know the sort of place: Lychgate, lovely little graveyard and possibly no toilet! These gems of church architecture and social history were posted around the new community with the result that there was no church building in the centre (a question: When developers build, why do they forget the infrastructure like shops, doctors, church and other staples of a good community?).

The answer here would be to build or otherwise utilise something suitable in the centre of the new population; a place where the community could come together and meet their needs (spiritual, social and community). The problem was that the lovely people in the pretty churches, although all up for growth and the spreading of the Gospel, only really wanted that to happen in a way that grew their congregations - and to be frank that just wasn't going to happen, So the place continues with the dying remnants of the churches that once was now keeping the lights on and having conversations over tea which hearken back to the 'good old days' (which I think happen after a gap of ten years has passed) when they had a congregation!

Meanwhile time will continue to pass and the Christian witness in that place will cease and the Church will have had another brick fall from the wall that is ministry and engagement fall and the witness will be weakened, probably never to return.

There is a another place I know where the people don't come into the church building even though it is central to the community. Here there are voices which call upon the people to move from the old building into something fresh and new and ready to be filled with new believers. Talking to one of the zealots (the definition of such being anyone who is more passionate about Jesus than me) about their desire for a new building I was told, 'This building is old and no one comes in - we need a new building where people are attracted and the old is put aside.'

Now I'm all up for Fresh Expressions of Church, especially in what we call a 'mixed mode' or 'mixed economy' setting where we find the inherited or established churches alongside night church, cafĂ© church and other engagements where the people and Church come into relationship and God is seen to be acting in the place and in the people they serve (and it's not the established church building). The problem is that as attractive as it is 'moving out' is not the general panacea for healthy and successful church. In fact when we have an old building we find ourselves take up with the 'cure of souls' (that means we care for the people in our patch) and function also as the 'curator of a place's memories' - and this is important.

To move into a place where the people ARE is important and missional (telling people about Jesus) important BUT being in a place where people identify themselves as part through their heritage and family history is something we cannot afford to pass up and brings some unique selling points and relationships.

More recently I am beginning also to hear those who want to move from an existing building because they don't want to be tied to a building and the maintenance and the money having your own place demands.

'If only we weren't tied to the building,' said one of the most lacklustre and boring people I think I may ever have met, 'Then the people would flock in I'm sure,' they continued. My question was, 'Why? What good is a change of venue without a change in the way that you think about those who aren't coming?' My question was met with a steely star and the conversation dwindled away and my colleague left offended.

There are many reasons to change what is inside the building - after all we celebrate the various architectural bits from the generation passed and yet struggle to make the buildings fit for purpose - changes that keep a building relevant are useful and necessary as much for the soul as the welfare of the people and when the time comes that the building is no longer an effective place than it needs to become a 'festival church'; a place where the building is used for set services during the year but no longer for regular Sunday (and other) services.

Add lighting, PA, TVs or projector screens to help make the services run (and projectors and TVs cut costs as there's less paper to print and trees to cut down!) as we would like it to run - and what about a place for baptism other than the font (get digging)? Building kitchen space and toilets and the stuff that make a building useful and utilise every crook and nanny* you can find in the place: We must never walk away from our buildings lightly and yet we must not let them handcuff us either!

There's a lot in this splurge and there's so much more I'd love to add and comment upon but I'm sure you get the picture by now. Our buildings should be aids to ministry not lead weights that drag us down and yet, that said, sometimes we blame the building when the real problem lies in the nearest mirror.


* Yeah I know - apparently it's a 'vicism'


Rev G said...

I'm in a church which is virtually unusable but are limited by what we can do because of the place it has in the history of our town and the attitude of the diocesan higher ups.

Your post has made me think that we need to do something somewhere else, but the question is, 'How?'



Vic Van Den Bergh said...

I'd say that you need to get your church council on a 'Mission Shaped Introduction' course and then enrol the movers and shakers onto a 'Mission Shaped Ministry' course to follow that and look at the needs around you and the ways you can meet them and the laces that are available for that meeting to take place in.

If I can help - contact me and I'd be happy to help :-)