Church buildings come in all shapes and sizes. From the dramatic Gothic Cathedral to the humble pre-fab chapel, church buildings are, more often than not, at the heart of their communities.
Even churches which don't own their own buildings often find themselves meeting in places right in the heart of where people live – schools, community centres and even buildings which belong to other churches.
Because of our Christian history, churches often have prime locations – in city centres, in the heart of residential areas, alongside other key civic institutions such as town halls and schools.
This makes it all the more disappointing to learn that buildings belonging to churches are lying unused for much of the week. A new report from the Centre For Theology & Community (for whom I have worked) has researched how much are buildings are actually in use. Assets Not Burdens: Using Church property to accelerate mission takes a snapshot of one London borough, Islington, and looks into how church buildings from all denominations are used.
It's quite discouraging to learn the bare statistics. Church halls are empty 57 per cent of the week, church worship spaces are empty 69 per cent of the week and church meeting rooms are empty 75 per cent of the week. This is disappointing on a number of levels.
First, it means that the chance of us having interactions with people from the local area are low. Second, it means that more often than not, people will see a closed or even locked door on a church building. Third, it means we're missing out on income which could be ploughed back into mission.
So, what's going on here? Why aren't more of our churches flinging wide the doors and welcoming in community groups, charities and small businesses to use their spaces? Well, many of them are. The report acknowledges that, "Nearly every church uses its buildings to benefit the community, either by providing church-run activities or hosting the activities of other organisations." It also says that some larger churches are setting a good example and have staff who manage their halls and other buildings.
The real problem lies with those churches who don't have the capacity to do this. Too often, buildings are seen as burdens, swallowing time, money and effort. Marketing and managing church spaces can seem like too much of a demanding task – especially with so many competing pastoral and spiritual challenges. The report argues that this needn't be the case, though.
It says the main barrier to opening up buildings is how they are viewed. "The solution lies in recognising their potential for mission," it says, "which leads to church growth. We need a change of mind set."
With this in focus, the report highlights several case studies of churches large and small which have creatively used their spaces. It showcases the example of KXC, a church which has opened up one of its buildings for use as a co-working space – meaning freelance workers and small businesses have a base to work from. The church then has interactions with a whole group of people it wouldn't necessarily have come across – all while receiving some rental money from the project.
It isn't just for large churches though. The report says there are options to provide the capacity smaller churches lack. "We propose a new enterprise-based approach," it argues, "a pilot social enterprise which would help these churches to market and manage their spaces and get them into greater use, whilst generating an income for the church as well."
The approach has met with a warm reception from different branches of the Church. Bishop Dr Joe Aldred is a leading voice in the Black Pentecostal church. He said Christians must, "beware buildings becoming mausoleums, objects of worship, places of pietistic retreat, or even places of exclusive cultural retreat," while he suggested churches should be looking at innovative solutions: "All the resources which churches accumulate are intended by God to be put to use in the service of God and the mission of God in the world.
For his part, The Bishop of Worcester, Rt Rev John Inge said a creative approach to church buildings fits with the Church of England's, "vision to see Christians using their buildings 'to love our neighbour' as well as to worship God."
So, the challenge is laid down, and hopefully it's one that many will rise to. Churches can use their buildings better to facilitate mission and bring in much-needed income. Everyone's a winner.