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… does your building have a church?

In the fifty or so that I have been engaged in ordained ministry I have witnessed the closure and selling off of many places of worship. This is especially true in the Free churches. For example between 1963 and 1973, the Methodist Connexion closed and sold several thousands of churches. Following the formation of the United Reformed Church, it sold off at least a quarter of the church building it inherited from the denominations that formed it.

While the Congregational Federation has fared somewhat better, we have seen the closure of churches, many times greater than the formation of new ones. In the period in which I have served as Area Secretary and Pastoral Care Coordinator for the East Midlands, I have seen the closure of three churches, with a fourth now looking uncertain. That is about 10%. I am aware that there are more than a few that remain where the congregation has been declining while the average age of the members has been increasing. Are we facing an inevitable demise?

Part of the problem is about how we think about our buildings. What we have inherited was the result of a relatively few people who formed a Congregational church that existed before it had a building. The building would have been paid for out of the generosity of its members and was designed to meet its expectations at the time. That was a time before television (and possibly before radio), before independent motorised transport, and before the internet. I am not sure that the proportion of committed Christians was greater then, but certainly congregations were larger.

Out of those larger numbers came children for our Sunday Schools, brought up in our traditions, also those who came to faith and became members and willing workers for the church. But times have changed, and we are left with inherited buildings that are often too large for our needs and expectations, costly to heat and maintain, and sometimes not very comfortable.

But if it is the ‘building that has a church’, we will carry on till we can do no more to keep going what we have inherited, just as long as “it will see me out”. But we are doing it at the expense of what should be the real life and mission of the church. We remain enslaved when we should be free. So, let’s do a little imagining together.

Let us suppose that you are an average congregation of twenty most Sundays, but might double that two or three times a year. The church has pews that will seat one hundred and twenty, and a gallery that could seat another fifty if it was cleaned up. There is a “School room” that can accommodate at least fifty people. All you really need is one main area that will accommodate up to fifty people, with perhaps a vestry/office and a small hall. If the main area is flexible, seating could be moved to suit different kinds of meetings including children and youth activities. Space to park cars would be nice.

Now, you could struggle on as you are, or grasp the nettle. Your premises could be worth at least a million pounds, perhaps. With that money you could downsize to something more appropriate by relocating. Redeveloping the site might be possible but could lead to planning difficulties (especially if the existing building is listed). Of course you would need an interim plan which could be based upon the use of homes and/or/ temporarily hired premises such as a local school.

The change will bring opportunities for fresh thinking, some new activities, and a wonderful shared sense of purpose. We are all now familiar with ‘downsizing’ our personal living space. Why not do it as a church? If we did outgrow the new building perhaps we could plant another congregation. Well, not if we have a building that ‘has a church’ rather than a church that has a building.

If your building is a realistic size for the community in which it is set, then that’s fine. On the other hand if it is larger than you might reasonably need and is becoming a burden, perhaps it could become an asset for the growth of the kingdom. Perhaps you could downsize and start to grow.

Barry Osborne - August 2021