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Opinion >

Open up the doors and let the people come in

Too many church buildings lie empty for most of the week. It is time to unlock their potential, says Tim Thorlby

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THE Church of England has 15,700 churches. It probably owns just as many church halls, and even more smaller meeting-rooms. In addition to vicarages, many parishes also own housing.

These buildings are often expensive to run, and can be a source of anxiety. A report by the Church Buildings Review Group in 2015 estimated that £1 in every £6 spent by parishes was capital expenditure on their buildings (News, 16 October 2015). Running costs, such as heating and insurance, have to be found on top of this.

Few clergy, however, would want to be without a permanent set of buildings. They are enormously useful in enabling a wide range of activities, whether Sunday services, Tuesday-evening PCC meetings, or Zumba in the church hall on Friday afternoons. Those churches that rent buildings (as many Pentecostal or independent churches do) nearly always want to settle in their own buildings.

Despite the importance, necessity, and expense of these buildings that churches own, they do not actually make much use of them.

The Centre for Theology and Community (CTC) published research this week on how churches actually use their buildings. The findings are stark.

The CTC conducted an in-depth study of churches of all denominations in the London borough of Islington, looking at how they use their buildings. The CTC approached all of the borough’s 85 churches, and received responses from 44 (a response rate of 52 per cent). Of the borough’s 28 Anglican individual churches (not parishes), 21 responded to the survey (a response rate of 75 per cent). It is a large and illustrative case-study: the borough is home to 215,000 people, and contains extremes of wealth and poverty.

Of the 85 churches in Islington, 62 own their own buildings. Between them, they have 59 worship spaces, 76 church halls, and 149 meeting-rooms — a significant number.

Every church uses its buildings for Sunday services, and nearly every church also uses its buildings to serve the community in some way during the week.

The research, however, suggests that the overall utilisation of church spaces is low. On average, across the borough and across every denomination, church spaces lie empty and unused for most of the week. Among the churches surveyed, church halls were empty 57 per cent of the week; church worship spaces were empty 69 per cent of the week; and church meeting-rooms were empty 75 per cent of the week.

The level of usage varies, but the overall picture is one of staggering waste. Church buildings are often described as “burdens”, but here are assets that sit idle for much of the week.

 

THE Church must adopt a new mindset towards its buildings. If it can find a way of unlocking this potential, there will be significant missional and financial benefits. Opening up churches could mean having them open for people to light candles and pray. It could mean hiring out the hall for community activities. Or it could mean entering into longer-term partnerships with nurseries or schools.

The missional benefits are obvious: new visitors, new relationships, new conversations. The financial benefits are significant, too: even the CTC’s cautious estimates suggest that the churches in Islington could increase their gross lettings income by nearly £3 for every £1 that they currently receive.

Such a move is pushing on an open door. In the CTC’s survey, 75 per cent of the churches said that they wanted to see their buildings used more by the community. It rather prompts the question, why do churches not make better use of their buildings already?

The research contains a key insight: small- to medium-sized churches simply lack the skills and the capacity to market and manage their buildings. Thus, simply exhorting churches to try harder, or to rely on “good-practice toolkits”, may work for well-resourced churches, but is mostly doomed to failure. The missional and financial benefits of most church buildings will be unlocked only if churches increase their capacity to manage their spaces actively.

The CTC believes that this could be delivered by an enterprise-based approach — particularly in urban areas, but also in some rural areas. The report proposes a new pilot social enterprise, Church Space Ltd, in London, to serve churches that are doing just this.

A not-for-profit enterprise would be able to market and let spaces on behalf of churches, sharing the new income with the church on a “no win, no fee” basis. This would provide new income for the church, and also cover its own costs. Such an approach is ideal for churches that simply do not have their own capacity to do this. Discussions have begun with potential funders about getting Church Space Ltd off the ground.

 

THERE is also much that larger and better-resourced churches can do to share with other churches their good practice and capacity. Those large enough to employ their own property- or facilities-managers could support neighbouring parishes in a way that benefits all. There is good practice worth sharing, too, some of which the CTC report describes in its case studies.

What about the risks? Would this just turn churches into money-making enterprises? No: the primary purpose of a church building is to facilitate the worship of God, and that would remain. Most parishes have enough spaces, such as halls and meeting-rooms, to use for community activities. Indeed, greater use of these spaces may lead to the offering of more prayer in the main church.

By making better use of its spaces, the Church will serve communities more faithfully, and accelerate mission and church growth. It will have turned burdens into assets.

 

Tim Thorlby is development director at the Centre for Theology & Community in east London, where he leads the centre’s work on research and enterprise. The report is available at www.theology-centre.org.

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