I was recently part of a discussion around the reopening of the local church. So many wonderful and creative ideas being passed around, but all focused on how to make sure people who come to the building aren’t turned away. Massively important of course, nobody wants to cap a church service and have to bar access to those who would take the number in the room to more than allowed. But what about those for whom getting into the building itself needs consideration. Those who by this point may not have left their house for months and may have high anxiety about doing so. Those who may have residual mental or physical illness arising from the Covid crisis? And of course there are many for whom physically attending a church in it’s pre-Covid form had been impossible for years. I would argue in any plan to reopen churches we have a responsibility to include all these groups in the new offering, and I’m sure the Disability Discrimination Act would agree.
The focus on reopening buildings is understandable. Many are incredibly beautiful and have been the focal point for gatherings for hundreds of years. However I have a different relationship to church buildings than many. My childhood church was a plant from a larger church which met in a school hall, my vague memories of which include running around with all the other kids in a separate room after the service pretending to be Thundercats (I was always Cheetara, of course!). My Grandfather became our Pastor, my Father was the Worship Leader, and we met in a community centre. I have few clear memories of the room we met in, however I have many wonderful memories of the people, the storytelling and drama, the fun run I won one year, the charity shop we founded and the many meetings in my parent’s house I would hide somewhere to spy on!
I also remember the documentary makers coming and filming us in an exploration of unusual places of worship. I remember how we used to go the the large regional shopping centre two or three times a year to lead a service in one of the exhibition spaces once Sunday trading became a thing. Again we were televised one year, this concept of worshipping somewhere other than a church seemed to be a big deal. For young me, it was just as it had always been.
We did eventually buy an old church building. We had grand plans for it, however they never came to fruition. Life happens! The charity shop became a food bank that still runs as an independent venture long after the season for the church ended and it’s people moved on. Many I’m still in touch with despite having left my childhood town almost twenty years ago. I can’t say I miss any of the buildings we worshipped in. But I do miss the sense of family, community, and working for the common good of those around us I was steeped in as I grew.
Did the building matter? Nope. Was the worship less because it wasn’t taking place under the watchful eye of a stained glass angel? Not at all. Did we bring God’s kingdom here on Earth? I’m sure the asylum seekers we fed and watered at the weekly soup kitchen would say so. Did striving to maintain our own building get in the way of that? I wouldn’t like to say for definite, but it’s a reflection worth having.
Of course I would love to celebrate Christmas in a beautiful candlelit church space. But the thing that meant the most to me as a child at Christmas was carol singing around the local hospital wards on Christmas Eve. Yes, let’s plan for how we reopen our churches. But lets also plan for how we bring the Kingdom to our communities in a way that transcends bricks and mortar, meets people where they are without expectation they have to seek us first, and where the need is greatest for those God calls us to serve.
Peace be with you.