Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Concerning the Other Type of Messy Church

This post will appeal to my boss, because on this issue we are probably of a like mind. This post is also rooted in the issue about which I may even venture to write a book.

This is not a post about Lucy Moore and her work. This concerns our church buildings in their rather unique place in our world. They are, in many ways, a cross between our homes and retail outlets. You will all be amply qualified to assess your home for its accessibility and welcome to your guests. I am amply qualified to comment on accessibility and welcome offered by retail outlets.

Neil Pugmire wrote a book called '100 Ways to Get Your Church Noticed', a tome that does well what it says on the tin. In my former life, the marketting men had much to say on how to get people to the front doors of our emporia, and in all our present lives, we will have views about how he like our homes to look to the eye of a passer-by or a visitor. However, getting people to the door is half the battle. In commercial terms, not a thread of carpet was ever sold to a person who never entered the building.

Churches, of all breeds age and churchmanship, seem to disregard the fact that they are places that provide something. It may be a place, an act of worship, a venue for an experience with God, a meeting place, a place to learn about churches, a concert, passing curiosity - all of these things represent, to forgive the terminology, the 'product' of a church. Frankly, the more of that 'product' that is taken up, the higher the footfall, and in the end, the greater the conversion rate (commercial and spiritual meanings intended). 

Let me illustrate my point from the perspective of a shop. How many carpets would be sold from a unit that closed its doors all day? How many would be sold from a shop that didn't put on its lights or kept the place warm? How many rugs would be transacted in a store that was a mess and behind whose doors was a pile of detritus that customers would be caused to climb over before they could get to what they came in for? How long would people remain in a store if the ambiance were a cross between the funereal and grumpy possessive? This is before I ask the same questions about your homes and how your visitors would experience them!

There are so many questions like this. The answer, of course, is not many. In Britain, many of us are blessed with some stunning churches that are half empty and rarely visited. We have a mandate to make disciples of people, yet one of the finest vehicles to that is the place from which we minister. Sadly I have lost count of churches that are in every way possible 'closed for business'. Ranging from damp cold, to mouldy smell, to piles of discarded pew sheets on the messy desk that I have seen inside the front door. Our visitors will judge our love for Our Lord by how we hove His house. Our visitors will recognise, quick as a flash, what is important to us. Does the church look like a dishevelled recording studio? Does it look like a faded museum of ancient artifacts? If it were your home, would you dream of having dinner guests sit at a table already cluttered with the dirty pots from breakfast or the innards of a knackered toaster? 

I urge every one of you reading this, who has an interest in their church building, to step outside the door and re-enter it with a camera. Take a picture of the first impression you get. Print it A3 in colour and be honest about what you see. Of course, this assumes that the doors aren't locked in the first place, which is more of the case these days. Evangelism is about 'going out', of course. But why, when we spend hard-earned shekels chasing them do we consistently neglect those who have felt called to visit us? There is a business statistic that I heard once: that only 1 in 14 customers enter a shop without ever having been affected by it in some way beforehand (recommendation, prior visit, advertising etc). Those are the ones who have more to do with the remaining 13 than any other. I wonder if a correlation can't be made in those who visit our churches for the first time. 


  1. Oh, you are so right.

    While at a conference on church revitalization, one of the presenters took us, via slides projected onto a screen, on a tour of a bunch of churches and pointed out to us things the regular members and clergy might not notice: doors that don't have handles on the outside (you people can't get in unless we let you); a locked fence around the baptismal font (!?!); hedges so high they obscure the way to the door (oh, we all know the way and besides we all use the back door!); fences around the property; etc. with commentary. Our diocese has considered having some of us visit churches and take the leadership there on a tour so that they can see what a visitor would see - except that we would make pointed commentary about what we see and what it looks like to others. We are blinded by familiarity and excuses that explain away the truth that you outline so clearly here. Good job.

  2. It's a conundrum. In our rural benefice we have five churches, some pretty ancient, grade 1 listed, containing many valuable artifacts. In the smaller villages, leaving them open all day is not a viable option, due to the times that we have been vandalised, broken into and just plain treated badly. Due to their rural locations, separated from the sprawling, widely dispersed villages they are part of, they are a soft target for such misuse.

    However, we do have arrangements for these churches to be opened for visitors either by arrangement, or if a casual visitor, a key holder lives nearby, and a notice saying how to contact them.

    Two of our churches do remain open from 0600 to 2000 hrs daily, one actually has daily morning and evening prayer, Both are located within the village, with a wider use by community, although not as wide as we would like. Their presence within a village provides some protection from the sorts of activities described above. All parishioners know which churches are open and what the facilities are.

    I would say that all of our churches are, when open, inviting, well maintained, clean and somewhere where you would feel to be worthwhile both visiting and returning. We're not perfect by any means and the lack of toilet facilities in four out of the five churches presents an issue, particularly for weddings and their wider community use.

    Getting a faculty to put in these facilities is both extremely expensive and notoriously difficult, when English Heritage is often opposed any changes to the configuration of a church, both internally and externally. The other issue is lack of funding for this work. Even with friends groups, we just about keep abreast of maintenance and repairs. At the moment, two of our smaller churches each need repairs calculated in the £120,000 range between them. Fundraising is underway, but it is likely to be some time before it's in place to allow the repairs to go ahead.

    And, we get four more, rural churches added to our benefice this year. At the moment, I don't know what the issues are with them, but I'm sure that they will share similar problems to our existing ones. They come, minus a stipendiary minister, but fortunately, with a house for duty assistant priest.

    The future for our benefice appears to be more struggle to keep old buildings going, when we could be better employed in mission and outreach. But do we sacrifice our Sacred spaces, which we would need if our mission and outreach is successful? It's a problem faced across the whole area of rural ministry, and I honestly don't have any answers.

  3. I recently visited a local church, St. Andrew's, Oxford, which had a lovely, homely welcoming feel. Not slick, just home-like.



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