Does Your Church Need To Think Differently About Mission?

Blackfen Community Library

Too often the modern church has used the attractional model of mission as its primary way of engaging our communities with the gospel. We put on a great event – with a brilliant worship band or a great orator or something fun for children – with the hope that if the quality of the event is good enough, people will want to come and hear something of the gospel.

Attractional/invitational church has helped multitudes of people come to faith. It forces churches to think about what their services feel like for visitors and seekers, whether mega church or café church. But there are other models of mission. Increasingly churches are finding ways to connect with the community outside of Sunday services, for example through foodbanks, Christians Against Poverty, ESOL classes and toddler groups. These have been a witness in themselves, as well as a gateway for many into our church services.

But a church in Bexley is trying something a little more ambitious that can offer us an insight into how we can step this community engagement up to the next level.

The vision of New Generation Church in Bexley near London is simple: "making good things happen". So when leaders of the church found out in April 2015 that their local library was out to tender for community groups, they knew what they needed to do. Ensuring the library remained a community centre was one good thing they decided to make happen. They drew up a business plan, articulated their vision and submitted a bid to the local council. Because local authorities are increasingly under pressure due to spending cuts, the church has an interesting opportunity to step up not only to help, but to think creatively about what mission can look like in our communities.

It was not all plain sailing for New Generation Church. Some people were nervous about Christians running a library. Some were worried about the church's motives. Others were worried that Christians would seek to censor the books and get rid of those that were too explicit. Some church members had conscience issues about stocking the explicit books. Leaders from the church responded to those fears by arguing: "I think God can defend himself" and pledged that the library would stock all the books it had done so before and more besides.

The big day for the council's decision arrived. There was a meeting in the council chambers which was also live-streamed on the internet, and a lot of enthusiasm was shown for the church running the library. Church leaders put this down to the track record of New Generation in the community. It had been running youth projects, a big summer holiday club and was even running a successful new free school. So the church received permission to take on the library.

The formal closure of the council-run library took place and then the church had just two weeks to refurbish and re-launch it. Lots of volunteers were mobilised, they stripped out the old décor and completely renovated it from top to bottom. They installed a new café area made entirely of pallets. Many church members took holiday from their jobs to complete the work which they did in the nick of time. A formal opening of the new library took place with dignitaries from the community including the local MP, members of the police force, councillors, teachers, shop keepers and other community activists. CBBC presenter Cerrie Burnell gave a special story-telling session and the Mayor of the London Borough of Bexley performed the ribbon cutting ceremony.

Since its re-opening, the library has welcomed 2,500 new members and more than 41,000 visitors. The council has been thrilled by the high quality and standards and by the outstanding usage figures. Lots of primary schools come in and use the library, two toddler groups meet there, local MPs hold their surgeries there as do the local police. There is a scrabble club and a craft club. The café serves barista-style coffee and teas and snacks. The library is staffed by two people whose salaries are covered by the contract the council now has with the church. But there are also more than 30 regular volunteers from the church and community who keep the library opening Tuesday to Saturday.

Paul Weston, leader of New Generation Church, says: "In the days of austerity that we are living in, it is a prime time for the church to take responsibility and make sure that the community spirit is not lost by the cut backs. We should be geared up to step into the gap and make things happen. But excellently and with a real passion to serve."

There is no doubt the library initiative has boosted the church's presence in the community. They have managed to build a thriving community centre that serves all sorts of people. It will be interesting to see how that affects the church in the long-run. I would hope that the church would see both numerical and spiritual growth for taking this step of faith.

I believe that New Generation Church offers us a fresh model of mission here. Rather than always simply inviting people to come to our events, there are opportunities to look outward to our communities to find out what is needed. I'm excited by the opportunities in front of us as churches to serve our communities, work with civic society and to be true to our Christian vocation. My prayer is that these kinds of initiatives will bear witness in world and works to the grace of God that everyone in our communities needs.