STRUGGLING empty churches could have a bright future if they were brave enough to let their communities in.
That was the message of a one-day conference held last week to encourage churches to open their doors to a range of community enterprises, from shops to pubs.
The conference, “Reimagining our Churches: Conservation to Co-operation”, brought together figures from the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, the Methodists, the Quakers, and others. There were also experts from the world of community-enterprise companies.
Jonny Gordon-Farleigh, the director of Stir To Action — the organisation that ran the conference — said afterwards that it had been a success. “It flowed out of a year-long pilot, where we explored how we could work with churches to create access to their buildings for local communities to use,” he said.
Stir To Action works exclusively with community enterprises: locally run and owned co-operative companies that reinvest all their profit into the community where they operate.
The sector was thriving, he said: at least 400 community shops and 50 community pubs were already in operation in Britain, particularly in villages and neighbourhoods where traditional businesses had pulled out.
Forming partnerships with churches was an obvious next step, he said: setting up community shops and other enterprises in a church building while maintaining it also as a place of regular worship.
The pilot scheme worked with three churches in the south-west of England: the Bridport Team Ministry; the 15th-century church and hall in North Molton, Devon; and a 40-year-old Baptist church in the centre of Exeter. Among the fruits were a community-run events company, and a pop-up café.
Stir To Action, working with the diocese of Exeter, helped each church and the community they were situated in to create new community enterprises which could use parts of the church buildings in innovative ways.
Mr Gordon-Farleigh said that his project was not about conservation and finding new uses for redundant churches, but about saving existing churches from closure by creating new partnerships between the often small congregations and their community.
Community enterprises were preferable to the usual volunteer-led initiatives inside churches, he argued, because they actually generated income that could be reinvested to create jobs and new livelihoods.
Congregations were often reluctant to open their doors to community businesses, because they feared that it would require too much work and fund-raising — installing lavatories or running water, for instance — before it could be practical.
Mr Gordon-Farleigh said, however, that he wanted to encourage churches to work with community groups as a first step, not trying to “fix” their buildings by themselves, but instead forming a partnership with a community enterprise that could take over the management of the space, leaving the congregation to focus on worship.
“We’re trying to break down that dynamic between church commun-ity and wider community,” he said; anyone could join community-enterprise co-operatives, including the existing congregation; so these businesses would be a true partnership between the church and the village.
“Actually,” he went on, “it’s the church future-proofing its own place of worship. Community inclusion is a conservation strategy.””