A Church with No Building
A New Building
When the church planting team arrived in Stockethill, the old church building was in a poor state of repair. It was still used by a long-established playgroup, but little else. Water damage and vandalism was making even this usage problematic.
The exciting expectation was that a new building would be constructed. Figures in the region of £300,000 were spoken. Plans began to be drawn up.
The team’s preferred ideas of how the church would take shape sat ambiguously with the prospect of this new building. On the one hand, such a building would form a great ‘auditorium’ for ‘seeker-sensitive’ events, as well as providing all the obvious resources of office space and community facilities. On the other hand, the cell-church model was concerned with small groups that could meet anywhere. There was nothing in the cell-church model that was necessarily against a building but equally, there was no necessity for one. The emphasis on small groups and discipleship drew to the fore the church as defined spiritually and on the personal relationships within which discipleship of Christ took place. A further voice of disquiet was raised upon reading Stuart Murray Williams: could the stresses of seeing a building constructed, and the assumptions about church life that can easily accompany a church’s possession of a building, lead to the fledgling growing to be malformed?
These concerns became more threatening as the team observed the development of the young church. This small group of people needed to be protected and nurtured so that their community could shape their own ministry and mission in Stockethill. Could their distinctive identity and community survive the gift of such a large building? Could they be confident that they wouldn’t find themselves first and fore-mostly running a building rather than being the church? Certainly this small church didn’t look like the nucleus of a new seeker-sensitive mega church.
Church and Community
Perhaps at the heart of this surprising situation was a growing divergence between two different views of the relationship between a church and its local community.
The construction of a new building with community facilities seemed to herald a renewed attempt to wrest to the church the centre of the local community. Given that community facilities already existed and were well used, shouldn’t the church seek to take its place alongside other community users?
Different understandings and assumptions about the nature of the church and its role in society lay in the background of these discussions. Should the church seek to be the centre of society, as historically was the case in Christendom? Or, is such a stance too closely associated with political and social power, not to mention counter-productive in an increasingly pluralistic and publicly secular nation?
In addition to the questions already mentioned about about a new and small church running and owning a building, the team were also aware that there already existed two community centres in the area. Furthermore, both of these centres could claim to be geographically at the heart of the parish. In contrast, the site of the old church building, which would be the site of any new building, was next to a busy dual carriageway, quite separate from the local school and shopping centre.
Two questions remained unanswered. Should the church attempt to put itself at the heart of the local community, potentially reducing the viability of the other centres by drawing away usage? Would such a scheme even work, given the location of the building?
The alternative to having a building was, it appeared to all, to be left in a vulnerable position. For some, this was an unnecessarily dangerous position to be in. It was unfair to this and future generations of Stockethill Church. They had the opportunity here to own their own building and so secure their hold on a place of their own in which to worship and from which to conduct mission. Without a building, the parish church would be left dependent on community facilities to which they had no right. The team were perceived by some to be burning their bridges by refusing a building, making decisions that later generations would not be able to reverse. For the team, being vulnerable was hardly comfortable. And yet they felt that such an experience could chime with that of Christ, and his first disciples, who had ‘no place to lay his head’ (Mt 8:20; Lk 9:58). It was essentially a powerless position and in that sense spiritually healthy for a young church. The task before them was simply to be the church, understood as disciples of Christ. Owning buildings was not forbidden, but could only take place secondarily after the question of identity in Christ was thoroughly answered.
What does a Church without a Building look like?
Not having a building provided a novel context in which the church could grow. Initially, following the first Alpha course, the church met in the café area of a local community centre. Meeting around tables was popular. It created a sense of participation, conversation and community and this was preserved as the meetings were transferred into a larger gym hall. It also, of course, echoed the New Testament practice of the love feast (e.g. Acts 2:46 Jude 1:12; 1 Cor. 11:17-34). Without doubt, such a practice could have developed inside a building but it was probably easier for this to become so central to the church’s identity when the church did not have to deal with the body of tradition associated with the Church of Scotland’s buildings and worship.
Similarly, the emphasis that Stockethill has on multiple congregations and small community groups could have developed within a building, and at times have been facilitated by it. Even so, without the option of a building, people were more ready to meet in diverse locations and therefore witness through their worship in the places where people lived rather than in a location separate from the places where they lived day to day. Particularly with small groups, individuals were able to offer hospitality to groups and to feel that the groups were their own, in which their participation was valued and important. They were not merely the recipients of the minister’s words.
An Organisation or a Church?
There is one final way in which the church grew to think of itself that is closely related to the question of a building. As has been emphasised repeatedly, the church’s identity in Christ is the most important part of its existence. As a well-oiled organisation there is much good that a local church can do. However, in and of itself, being an organisation that does good is not the kingdom of God. It could be, but there are personal and relational components to dependence on Christ and connection to each other that cannot be deemed merely as optional. This is summed up in Ian’s oft-repeated phrase.
We are not looking to be a organisation that does good things for its community. We want to be a community that helps each other love its neighbours.
The former could quite literally be atheist. The latter seeks after our love and worship of Christ and then seeks to share it. This could lead to steps in organisation, as was discovered when the church sought to revise its understanding of pastoral care, but this organisation must not overwhelm the priority of perceiving life as worship of and witness to Christ.
The church planting team saw the prospect of a building project as a problem for a young church, seeking to grow in its understanding of the love of God with all that it entails. For such a small group of people, there were more important tasks of discipleship to be faced than that of managing a building. It neither made sense for the local community or for the small church.