Last Sunday was a significant moment for churches in England as legal restrictions were lifted on places of public worship. It was an answer to prayer and I am delighted that so many churches, including some in our own denomination (EPCEW), were able to meet in person to worship together.
However, for many churches it has been a bittersweet experience. Many congregations across the UK do not own their own building but rent their place of worship, so depending on others to make a decision to open up buildings for public use.
For us in Solihull Presbyterian Church the desire to be together in worship has only got deeper the last 100 days as we have had to make do with the wholly inadequate method of internet technology to broadcast services of worship. And who isn’t suffering from “Zoom fatigue” as we have had prayer meetings, fellowship times, Sunday school at a distance?
In Solihull, we have the added problem that we were asked to vacate our premises just days before the lockdown. The building had been deemed unsafe in its current state and a hard closure date was given. Considerable amounts of money are required to get the building into a fit state but the owners had decided not to commit any more to it . On our part we explored every avenue to get the building up and running, but the more we looked, the more the costs seemed to stack up. It was too much risk to take on.
So now we are homeless!
Of course, with nothing open, how do you go about finding a new venue? Schools, community halls and churches have all been closed and who is going to commit to a rental agreement with a third party until they have sorted themselves out? Now that lockdown restrictions has been lifted for places of worship we are still finding that many places have no plans to open for a while, probably not until September. Schools have the headache of planning to bring back students with social distancing measures and keeping schools virus-free with deep-cleaning plans. Who wants a third party group complicating things? Also we are finding that many local churches that may have a slot in their Sunday schedule (many have one Sunday service) are not planning to open soon.
For me this predicament has raised various questions about the nature of our mission as a church in Solihull. As a young person growing up in the west of Scotland I always thought of “a church” as a building on a street corner. But since my conversion some 40 years ago I learned to think of the church as the people, the members of the body of Christ. The Holy Spirit has baptised the church and he gives it life. The life is not in a building.
However, geography does matter, and buildings matter, to the extent that it defines a centre for gospel ministry. It is a place to bring people to. It is a visible presence in the community that can become familiar to people. It is a centre where the preaching of the gospel can be heard week-in, week-out. I recognise that this is not a strong theological or biblical argument to make for buildings. Where does the New Testament ever speak of bespoke buildings to meet in? However, it is an on-the-ground practical application of the missionary principles that have driven the church through the ages. As the gospel spreads places of worship spring up.
Having a place for worship makes planning for gospel ministry clearer. It defines an area we can reach. We know the people we should reach, the streets to visit. We know how many homes a church of our size can cope with. Sure, church members can share the gospel with friends and internet technology means we can broadcast far and wide. In one sense, there are no geographical limits. But we are still left with the question, what about the people in our neighbourhood that we are not friends with or don’t download a church podcast? These people need to be reached too. And when they have been reached and they believe, they need to be drawn into the bonds of fellowship of their local church and hear there the regular preaching of the word.
That is why being “homeless” as a church is so discombobulating. It is not simply a matter of finding an anything-will-do place to meet. It is tied to the question of how we reach Solihull.
When I first came to Solihull, there were something like 25 churches in the wards surrounding the town centre that had 100,000 people in them. That’s a third of the national average density of churches. If anything the number of churches in Solihull has declined. I know for sure three have closed since – there may be more – and I am not aware of any new ones that have opened. There is such a need here.
Will you pray for us and with us? We need a building to meet in. But we need stability – preferably with a building that we can call our own. And we need one that is in a locality where we can make plans to be able to reach people with the gospel of Jesus Christ.