Tim Thorlby is CTC’s Development Director and he leads our work on research and enterprise. Here he blogs about our new report on how churches use their buildings and the enormous potential they have for mission.
I recently visited a church in north London. Its congregation was small , elderly and gradually declining. The pastor was not hopeful about the future. “What can I do?”
I looked around me. The church building was in good condition. But apart from the Sunday services and a couple of evening activities, it sat empty all week long. Next door was a large hall, with a kitchen and offices – almost a small conference centre. It sat empty all week long. It had housed a nursery until three years ago, providing childcare for the local community and giving the church a significant income. When the nursery left, it was never replaced.
“What can I do?”
Many conversations within churches about their buildings centre on how much they cost to maintain and repair. Lots of muttering about guttering. Buildings are seen as problems to be overcome. Yet in most cases, they also offer tremendous opportunities. Church buildings are certainly not the primary answer to the church’s problems, but they are certainly part of the answer. They are major assets and have enormous potential for community, mission and even income.
Our new report Assets not Burdens is based on in-depth research in London. We have measured the extent to which church buildings – of all denominations – are used throughout the week. We have discovered that almost every single church uses its buildings to serve the local community at some point. We have also explored why so many church halls sit empty for so much of the week.
The overall utilisation of space by many churches is actually quite low. But getting these spaces into use can bring great missional and financial benefits to the church. New relationships with neighbours, new serving opportunities and, yes, sometimes new income too. The report – and the case studies we are publishing alongside it – provide strong examples of churches making good use of their spaces; hosting community groups, working in partnership with schools, providing new co-working spaces, even accommodating other churches. There are examples of good practice, but they are not the norm.
The report also looks forward and makes practical recommendations on how we can make the most of our buildings. Crucially, we believe that the answer for many small churches which lack capacity is not more exhortation but practical help – they need more ‘doing’ capacity to help them maintain, manage and market their spaces for missional use. We are proposing a new pilot social enterprise in London to help churches do just this – Church Space Ltd. We are currently talking to potential funders about getting this off the ground.
We believe that enterprise-based approaches can have great value for the church in its mission. For example, the London Missional Housing Bond demonstrated that social investment can help provide housing for the workers of growing churches.
There is also much that larger and better resourced churches can do to share their good practice with each other and ‘level up’.
There is a challenge here for each denomination to develop positive strategies for making the most of their assets.
By making better use of our spaces, we are serving our communities more faithfully and accelerating our mission. Let’s turn our burdens into assets.
You can follow Tim on Twitter @TimThorlby