Today's BBC headline 'Should buildings be a priority for the Church?' is a topical question - particularly as I begin a new business venture focused on buildings for Churches!
'Of course they should' would be the answer expected of a Church architect. Actually I care little for church architecture in itself - a shocking revelation maybe. In many cases they are a wonderful and important heritage in the UK but to what extent do our church buildings truly help the Church's mission to make disciples of all peoples? Too often they are more of a hindrance, draining money, sucking resource, sending out the wrong message to contemporary society and, importantly, often providing wholly inappropriate accommodation for the activities the Church should be engaging in.
The evolution of Church architecture in the UK reveals, and arguably had a part to play in the christian culture of the nation. Medieval church buildings were the focal point of the town; the majestic buildings towering over every other, built as an act of worship but fulfilling a community function as gathering place, market place, worship centre. Victorian adaptations of these large barn-like spaces and many new church buildings celebrated society's christian ethos by imposing strict, usually hierarchical, fixed seating arrangements at the expense of the flexible community facility demonstrating an expectation of Sunday church attendance.
So many of our historic church buildings are still saddled with a straightjacket of past arrangements which are unbiblical in the practice of worship they impose and render the main spaces useless for any other purpose.
Typically, Churches in recent years have moved towards a model of what I call 'traditional modern'. Churches occupying both new build and adapted historic buildings have begun releasing the potential of their site by providing a large auditorium for worship and other events supported by four or five meeting rooms for children's work, a foyer, toilets, kitchen and offices (not to mention copious amounts of storage... everywhere). This is releasing, and supports Church life brilliantly. My challenge though is the extent to which this model of church building is church-centric and to what extent it engages with the real needs of people all around who are not part of church life? The resultant buildings provide for peripheral community engagement because the building is a great resource, but the community function isn't always the primary focus of the design.
The BBC article suggests that perhaps our church buildings, particularly in rural locations should become community buildings in some way. I have some sympathy with this view but the function of the building shouldn't be determined by the Church's perceptions of what the community need. My firm belief is that emerging contemporary church architecture will be radically different from any forms of church building we have seen to date. The best examples will be those conceived by Churches who truly understand the real needs of the local community. This means Churches getting out and relating with neighbours, people all around, councillors, community leaders to find out how we can turn our church buildings, old and new, into assets that help Churches demonstrate the gospel of Jesus and make disciples of all peoples.
Should buildings be a priority for the Church? No. The Church is God's plan for reaching the nations with his message of salvation; people are the Church's priority. So what of our buildings? People need shelter, places to gather, especially given the UK's climate. Buildings are important for the Church in building community, developing relationship and meeting peoples' needs. They are an invaluable tool in transforming communities and changing lives which is the highest priority for the Church. The question is, what form should our church buildings take?