Rev Canon John McGinley
"I prefer our shed church Mummy" said seven year-old Sam to his mother Catherine as they left one of our nation's finest cathedrals after a morning service. The 'shed church' he was referring to was the building of St John the Baptist church, Hinckley, Leicestershire where I was vicar.
Catherine had come to faith in Christ a few years earlier and Sam and his sister had started to attend services as her faith came alive. Sam's statement was very perceptive as St John's had been erected in the 1950s using the design of an agricultural building with the intention of constructing a "proper" church once the new daughter church congregation had been established. We were now in 2006 and no proper church building had been constructed, and the 'shed' was now deteriorating as it had exceeded its fifty year life expectancy.
Sam's experience reveals a number of the key aspects of our relationship with church buildings today. Firstly it is a story of mission and salvation. He and his family had come to faith in Christ at St John's Church because of the holiday club, social events, children's work and Alpha Course that all played a part in their journey to faith.
That required a building that could host these events and despite its poor shed-like appearance the flexible seating, kitchen and video screen were key in this. The church in the United Kingdom is in a missionary, post-Christendom and post Christian context. Only seven percent of the population regularly engage in Christian worship. The result of this is that our buildings have to serve a missionary purpose and not only provide facilities for worship.
Sam's conversation is also instructive because he wasn't expressing a preference for sheds over gothic cathedrals, he was expressing how the experience of friendship and church family, the participatory form of worship and the engaging activities were what was meaningful for him. But at the same time his reference to the 'shed' also shows that he had a relationship with the physical building, that he was aware of his surroundings and that nothing could hide the fact that it was like meeting in a shed!
As human beings God has made us with spatial awareness and an appreciation of form and colour, where the environment in which we live has a significant impact upon us. We connect spaces with experiences and we differentiate buildings according to what happens in them. Therefore, the physical environment in which missionary activity takes place can be significant in a person's journey to faith.
One way of understanding how people relate to church buildings is as 'third places'. This phrase comes from Ray Oldenburg's assessment of the spaces in which we live our lives in his book The Great Good Place, with home and our immediate household classified as the first place, our work place, or educational establishment, is the second and then there are third places.
Church buildings are examples of third places, and so are coffee shops, social or sports clubs, public libraries, parks and gyms. These places are homes from home, where we can relax with others in public, where we experience community and they act as another anchor point for our lives.
Open and readily accessible to everyone
From Oldenburg's recognition of the significance of third places we can see how important church buildings can be for people. And this has so much missional potential as we invite people into our church buildings to explore faith. But third place thinking also reveals the challenge of making church building places of mission because third places in our culture have certain characteristics which people look for as they look to find those homes from home. They must be open and readily accessible to everyone. They need to be hospitable and comfortable for those who are there. The mood and tone is one of informality, with nothing pretentious or grandiose; they have a homely feel.
We can recognise this description in our high street coffee shops or gyms, but how many of our church buildings can be described like this? Our buildings were designed to inspire people to worship God when they were built. But to people in our culture they can often feel cold, austere, and unwelcoming, and they often lack the facilities to enable accessibility and hospitality. The physical environment of a church building, into which people are invited, has a big effect on whether they feel like this is a place they can be at home.
It is for all these reasons that I lead Myriad, a team of people with a vision for encouraging churches to replant and revitalise churches in existing church buildings or to plant churches in different spaces. In my twenty-six years of ordained ministry I have been involved in four church building projects; the redevelopment of two Grade II listed Victorian buildings and the demolition of two deteriorating twentieth century buildings and the reconstruction of new church and community spaces. But I have also worshipped and prayed, spoken at evangelistic events and led enquirers courses in pubs, coffee shops, local parks and school halls.
Creating church in the third spaces in which people already gather
I am convinced that we need a 'both and' not an 'either or' approach to deciding how church buildings can serve the church's mission and whether to plant in a new location. Every building and community is unique and each one will need a different approach. Some of the buildings will be heritage buildings that inspire a connection with the awe and wonder of God and should be used for worship, significant festival and civic events. To try and redesign the building is not possible or economically practical so alongside them we will need to create church and do mission in the third spaces in which people already gather – the gym, care home, community centre.
Other church buildings have potential to have aspects of them redeveloped for mission and doing so maximises the potential of the social capital in people's memory of the church, and appreciation for the church's role in the local community. But for them to become third places in people's lives there will need to be places within them where people can relax, with facilities to serve them. And the 'both and' approach will enable us to think creatively about what aspects of church life and mission should take place in which places. And with the pandemic development of online facilities the church as a third place will also involve digital communities and 'spaces'
I am so glad that in the 1950's the people of Holy Trinity Church, Hinckley had the vision to plant a daughter church and build a 'shed' to host the community of St John's Church. It has meant that hundreds of people like Catherine and Sam have come to faith in Jesus Christ. We will need such courage and creativity as we respond to the missionary challenges of our time and discern how our church buildings and other places can play their part.
Revd Canon John McGinley is Executive Director, Myriad and of The Gregory Centre for Church Multiplication.