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Today, I Have Mostly Been Thinking About Buildings …

… because two issues have been on my mind. The first is that a major upgrade to our church hall should be finished in time for rededication on Sunday. We have spent a lot of money bringing it more than up to scratch for disabled access, and implementing some necessary refurbishments at the same time. We shall have good reason to say a public thank-you to the man who has seen the scheme through from vision to completion.

But finding a form of words to use for rededication is difficult. There is an order of service in the Methodist Worship Book for the dedication of a new church building, but it doesn’t fit what we need here. (Not that the denomination should provide a liturgy for absolutely everything.) Even if that service did have some resonances, much of the wording assumes that church = building. And I don’t think so.

The second also revolves around some joyful news. I have been asked to conduct a wedding. However, the couple requested they have a low-key informal wedding in a country house or similar property. The trouble is, English and Welsh law won’t allow that. As an ‘Authorised Person’, I can only conduct Christian weddings in registered religious buildings. The law that allowed weddings in public places other than register offices and places of worship specifically limited those ceremonies to civil weddings, that is secular ones where no religious content is allowed. I’m fairly sure that’s because the Church of England saw the move as a threat to their ‘business’, but it means I’ve had to disappoint the couple concerned. As far as they were concerned, if their Christian friends were present, then wherever they were, they were ‘in church’, because church = the people.

Before the last General Election there was a White Paper before Parliament proposing changes to marriage laws, where the deciding factor would not be registered buildings but registered celebrants. As a minister in a mainstream denomination, I would have become a celebrant, and if I deemed a venue suitable (and it met certain otehr minimum criteria), then I could have conducted a wedding there, rather like the Scottish system. The White Paper died at the election, and hasn’t been resurrected. We are thus left with a church = buildings assumption built into the marriage law of the land.

None of this is to deny the necessity of buildings, or to romanticise the church = people equation. I know of churches planted in Uganda that have been desperate for their own buildings for the pragmatic reason that they needed to get their people out of the intense heat. And just as I know what a burden it can be in an historic denomination to have to maintain a building, I also know of issues with ‘new churches’ that find  the hiring of buildings difficult. Lugging equipment in and out of a school every Sunday can be a drain. That isn’t viable with the predominantly elderly congregations I serve – although neither is it easy for them to find enough able-bodied people to take care of everyday maintenance.

The other side of the coin, is of course, the idolisation of buildings. I have seen church communities so devoted to their bricks and mortar that you wondered who or what was being worshipped.

And maybe worship is the issue. Buildings are not masters but servants. Where we worship them, God is not worshipped – whatever religious activities we conduct within them. When we recognise them as servants, they are in their proper place. Treating buildings as servants becomes a healthy framework for our decisions about them. Is what we are proposing to do a way in which the building is used to serve God and serve other people?

Even then, we have to watch our hearts for additional or ulterior motives. There is no doubt on Sunday morning that when we rededicate our church hall there will be a major element of service about that. It is used by many community groups. At the same time, the fact that it is brings in necessary income for us. I like to presume that the offering to the community takes predecence in our thinking over our need to raise money. (We have invited our hirers to the service, and we shall pray God’s blessing on them – the dancers, the pre-school, the silver band and all the others.)

For if it were to be the latter motive of balancing the books, then we would need to think seriously about our motives. If our overall aim was about our finances, then I’d start thinking of Jesus’ words in Mark 8 that those who want to save their lives will lose them. I don’t see why they can’t be applied corporately, to churches, not just individually. Many churches are obsessed with self-preservation, and how they view their buildings can be one sign of this sickness. However, those aiming for self-preservation, and whose reasons for using their building reflect this, are the churches most likely, according to Jesus here, not to be preserved at all.

So by all means let’s have buildings. We need them. Let’s ensure they are our servants, not our masters. And when they are used as inanimate servants, let’s be careful to watch our motives. May God search our hearts.

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Don’t Stuff The Dog

Angie Ward has an excellent piece at Leadership Journal entitled Don’t Stuff The Dog. She talks of how pet owners have deceased animals stuffed and left in the house as a sign of denial and also sometimes to scare off strangers. She makes this telling comparison:

Churches seem to have a special proclivity toward “stuffing the dog,” maintaining programs, buildings, and even members in an attempt to forestall necessary change. In the short term, it’s sometimes much easier to stuff a church’s pets than to acknowledge their death, grieve their loss, and give them an appropriate burial.

These pets may take the form of programs that are tied more to history than to current effectiveness; they may be personal favorites, the “pet projects” and ministries of influential leaders who don’t want to let go of them; or they may just be familiar mutts that everyone agrees have passed their prime, but are more familiar (or maybe just cheaper!) than a new animal.

… stuffed animals might bring temporary comfort to those inside the organization, but they may actually turn off or even frighten newcomers who aren’t familiar with the history and meaning behind them. Whether it’s a particular worship style, a ritual, an outdated program, or even a powerful clique within the church, visitors will usually be quick to notice that something’s not quite right. They may not stick around to find out what, or why.

It’s so hauntingly familiar. How often as church leaders we are called to exercise spiritual terminal care over a church group that does not realise or want to contemplate that it is dying. For all my interest in contemporary ministry, the classic meeting that fits this idea wherever I go is the Women’s Fellowship. The formula is predictable. They meet on a midweek afternoon for an hour. There are always three hymns taken from a long-superseded hymn book, an opening prayer that remembers the sick who cannot be present, and a speaker who may be religious in theme or not. It meets a genuine need mostly for elderly widows who would not otherwise see many people from week to week apart from Sunday morning.

However they often cannot understand why the women in the congregation who have more recently reached retirement age don’t want to join them. There has been a culture change, and these women generally prefer the home group. It’s more informal and in the best ones more opportunity for vulnerable openness and mutual support.

But while it’s easy to look down on outmoded Women’s Fellowships, we may miss the likelihood that the home groups may themselves soon need terminal care. A Bible study where the challenge of the material is dissipated by a quick closing prayer and the opportunity over tea and coffee afterwards to move onto less uncomfortable topics of conversation, anyone?

In truth, all such new formulations are prone to this danger before too long. It isn’t just about culture change, it’s about losing the vision and the passion. What am I doing, both to give outmoded activities terminal care and a decent funeral, but also to help ensure that our whole focus remains on life and discipleship? Jut introducing something new as if ‘cell’ or ‘base communities’ or whatever were the answer is to miss the point. To change the metaphor, what am I doing to promote new wine and new wineskins?