Building community and body building?

Another Newcastle visit reflection post…….I saw lots of buildings in Newcastle Diocese. Yes, I know that sounds a bit odd, go to any place of human endeavour and there will be some sort of edifice.

The first was a church/community centre in an urban bit of Newcastle. The local parish had given up a building, and been part of the planning and realisation of an amazing community building – which a sanctuary which is a chapel for most of the week, a nave which divides into separate meeting rooms, a walk in coffee lounge which is open to anyone all week, more meeting rooms, an IT training room, a preschool unit… was quite something. The centre employes a couple of full time staff (the preschool is run separately), and makes extensive use of volunteers, not all of whom have anything to do with church. Various rooms are hired out on a regular basis, and the coffee lounge struck me as particularly inspired.

But….but….although the church had been a prime mover in the new building, and under the current agreement don’t have to worry about fund raising to maintain it… what point does a church become a community centre with a chapel? There is a challenge to grow disciples, to help people make the transition from belonging to a community group to being part of a worshipping, serving, church. Make no mistake, the Body of Christ in this particular building were very aware of that challenge, the challenge of sharing the Gospel with people who had come to the building for very different reasons.

The last building we were shown was the conversion of a small Workhouse in a remote village. Here, a committed parish priest had worked for years, building connections and networks of investors, taking on a small row of shops, funding some affordable housing, and now a beautiful community centre, which housed the “otherwise must close” library, a tourist information centre, meeting rooms, and “pods” which could be rented as offices/workspaces. I didn’t actually see the church at all (which is something I will make a point of doing when I next visit). But once again, there is that same challenge, in a very different setting, to make it clear why Christians try to build communities – because if it isn’t to share “the knowledge and love of God and of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord”, then why bother?

Some of the buildings we saw in between were churches. Stonking great huge Victorian churches, with ceilings as high as low flying aircraft, with footprints the size of small farms. (OK, I exaggerate a bit. But not much. These were some seriously large spaces.) More to the point, they had been some very dilapidated seriously large spaces. One had had a quarter of a million pounds invested in its roof, a five year project, and was now finally watertight….so work could start on redoing its ruined plasterwork. Another had been painstakingly restored while its worshipping community spent several years meeting in an old bakery. Whilst raising money, their people had also worked hard on community connections, on trying to evolve uses for these remarkable buildings beyond a few hours of services each week. Again, facing the same challenge of building the Body of Christ.

Finally I ponder two more buildings. One an old community centre converted to give a holiday centre for children. The other an academy school, purpose built, with a budget to make your eyes water. Neither was formal church, although the Church is heavily involved in both. But each set of leaders had a confidence about why they were doing what they were doing. As I think back to my first Newcastle post, I think bravery is part of the answer – do you agree?


8 responses to “Building community and body building?

  1. I suspect that those people who join together in community initiatives such as you describe might be inspired by God, either directly or indirectly through a genuine care and concern for their people and the places and communities that they live among.

    To my mind, things that are available to and that are used by the whole community are part and parcel of the mission of proclamation and pastoral care, essential ingredients in building a worshiping community and the body of Christ. Care is needed to ensure that the continuity of the worshiping community is preserved, but the aim being to increase and to go our further to spread the word. And what better encouragement is the love and care shown to others, coupled with a vibrant Gospel which celebrates Jesus’ incarnation in ways that are meaningful and understandable to newcomers.

    Perhaps and element of Fresh Expressions and Pioneer Ministry is needed, and the pioneers need not necessarily be Clergy. I see a role for empowering laity for these roles, particularly if they are drawn from the worshiping community, but we should also be seeking to encourage and empower those who aren’t necessarily subscribing members in pioneering roles in the hope that in due course, their exposure to the Gospel will gather them into the fold.

    • This kind of thing certainly doesn’t have to be clergy led, in fact I think it’s better done by the people with the best skills for the particular kind of engagement. And I would encourage them to be brave about sharing the Gospel too!

  2. Again, Claire, I pick up on one sentence of yours: if it isn’t to share “the knowledge and love of God and of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord”, then why bother? A former colleague of mine (way before I worked where I do now!) once talked of the sort of projects you describe as “Selling our birthright for a mess of potage” (he grew up with King James). I have some sympathy with that view, but have grown more to reflect on the degree to which the Church in Time is intended to demonstrate or encourage the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. Because surely this is exactly what ought to lie behind whatever we do?
    However, there are so many mixed perceptions both within the church and outside about what engagement with the/helping build community actually implies. This was so clear in the Faith in Rural Communities Research we did several years ago now. Especially with lay people, they rarely articulated that their involvement, help, ministry within the community was about “sharing the knowledge and love of God.” Some of the non-churchgoers interviewed had a clearer idea about it than the congregation!
    Thanks for the stimulation again. I may include some of this reflection in my chapter on mission for “The Book” 🙂

  3. I’m in no doubt that the people I met know exactly why they are so involved in their communities, but in the light of my conversations with my colleague while I was there, I do think we need to articulate clearly why we do what we do. And I quite agree, Simon, it’s all about the Kingdom.

  4. Is this not also a return to a possible (and likely romanticised) image of the Medieval Church, that was a community centre, with the holy bit up one end.

  5. It could be James, but then the whole building spoke of God rather than some of the building being noticeably dedicated to different pursuits. Some of those Victorian churches I wrote of will have that notionally medieval feel to them.

  6. This is something I constantly struggle with. We aren’t in such a partnership but the church has been running as a community centre for so long it is often hard to distinguish it as a church. It was pretty much branded as a sure start centre when I arrived. It is a fine balancing act. Unfortunately I don’t have an answer to my own problem.

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