As you drive through the country towns on our East coast you can’t help but notice how many buildings previously designated as ‘churches’ have been converted either to private residences (see Churches for Sale on FB) or to art studios, cafes or shops. You can read about it in The Age even!
Many of these are beautiful old buildings and the transformations their new owners give them are often quite stunning also. Unlike in WA, there’s a market over here for ‘dead churches’ and I’m conflicted as to how I feel about it.
There’s a part of me that is sad – sad that a building once used for worship and nurturing of faith is now used as a café or an Air BNB. And yes – I know ‘it’s just a building’ but it still feels well… sad… I read about an Anglican building conversion where the building had to be ‘de-consecrated’ before it could be used as a martial arts studio. My own theology doesn’t involve the building itself being sacred in any way, but there is still an incongruous feeling of sadness for the loss.
A crazy part of me wants to buy all the church buildings that are for sale and plant new churches in them. But the sheer fact that they are for sale is communicating that the community saw no further need for their presence. Is it a rejection of the Christian faith itself or a rejection of the form of faith that the building seemed to cultivate?
And what is it that the buyers see as attractive in ‘ex-churches’?
Is it the sense of spirituality that goes with them or just the high ceilings and timber floors – the blank canvas for a funky architect designed home?…
A further question is ‘should we ever have built these buildings in the first place?’
If I suggested today that a church raise money to fund a building that was purpose designed for Christian worship and would be used once or twice a week, the project would be laughed off the table as a waste of a resource.
Today we immediately think in terms of dual use / multi-purpose – hire out to the public to fund the outlay, type projects. No evangelical church I know of wants to build a dedicated ‘sanctuary’ any more – a sacred special space where the believers come to gather.
We would tut tut at ‘wastefulness’, patter about the ‘need for good stewardship’ and then if we did anything, we would seek to fund a multi-purpose, generic ‘large room’ that could double as dance studio, awards night venue, neighbourhood watch gathering space. Yeah it might be as ugly as a rusty shipping container, but it wouldn’t sit idle for 90% of the week…
I note that some aspects of the Anglo-catholic tradition still seeks to create dedicated spaces, but even these new modern ‘sanctuaries’ pale next to cathedrals in the centres of cities. They are clearly on a budget, constrained by local council guidelines and trying to reflect a more ‘suburban’ vibe.
The future for those in my tribe appears to be in the construction of concrete tilt up buildings with as few windows as possible to ensure the room is dark and can be lit with stage lights. I’m not sure of why we need to do this, but that may be either my age or my ornery nature showing.
To be fair there have been some genuinely creative, missional and inventive projects that have come about as churches have sought to meet both their own needs and those of their local community. Lakeside Baptist is one good example and Eight Day in Melbourne another.
I also wonder if part of the reticence to build a dedicated worship space is still an outworking of the church needing to be ‘relevant’. In it’s best expression this is about meeting real needs in the community, whereas at its worst it is about trying to be down with ‘cool’ so that people might be willing to step foot in the door. I think for the most part ‘relevant’ has failed us – it actually stripped us of our beautiful and disturbing uniqueness and shaped us into self-help organisations with an unappealing religious veneer.
As we have been talking about a building up in Yanchep over the last couple of years there is a part of me that would like to build a space that ‘looks like a church’ – that has both the appearance and the vibe of one of those old country weatherboard buildings – so that when people look at it – even if they have to retrieve something from their cultural memory – they look and say ‘ah – a church!’
Just a hunch – but I wonder if in this time of increasingly secularity we don’t need to embrace our uniqueness somewhat more and set up a space that is undeniably ‘church’ as we once knew. Sure, it might become a local tourist attraction – a novelty to the unfamiliar – but perhaps if we were to create a building and a landscape with wonderful beauty – that was also sufficiently functional, then maybe we might just speak to our community of the creator who is awesome and beautiful too.
So as I drive through these towns a part of me would like to buy one of these sad defunct buildings, put it on a couple of low loaders and send it back home to WA for re-initiating into the community as a ‘church’.
But is that good stewardship?…
And if Winston Churchill was right with his statement that ‘we shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us’, would we end up cultivating a form of faith that was archaic and past its use by date?
I’m still arguing with myself so feel free to join in…