In October 1943, following the destruction of the Commons Chamber by bombing during the Blitz, there was a debate over how the chamber should be rebuilt. With Winston Churchill’s approval, they agreed to retain its adversarial rectangular pattern, where the parties face each other for debate, rather than changing to a semi-circular or horse-shoe design favoured by other governments. Churchill vehemently defended the point that buildings speak to people and influence them, and thus his famous words on this point are forever remembered…
We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.
In 2017, I addressed the Vestry (AGM) of St. James’ Church in Rudry, giving an update on what we have done as a church over the previous year and where we were heading for the year to come. Amongst other things, I made two particular statements about the church growth we were experiencing back then:
We are reaching seating capacity at St. James’ and, certainly with the rise in children, our building is becoming more and more restrictive without a kitchen, toilets, parking, and extra space to meet. We need to think and pray seriously about how to address these issues in the long term if we are to sustain growth and cater for our growing congregation. We may need to make bold and courageous decisions, which will need the support not just of the PCC, but the whole church family.
Whilst a growing church is a very good thing, it can also make the church fragile in other ways. It is important, as we grow, to continue to make room, to be understanding of each other, and to give each other permission to belong to the family.
Time has gone on, and at the latest (2018) Vestry Meeting, the Enlarging the Tent Building Project was launched; an ambitious plan for a rural church to expand its facilities to include toilets, a kitchen, flexible space and an upgrade of our current facility.
The Vestry Meeting was buzzing with enthusiasm and expectation. Everyone in church knows that we are at capacity and that something must be done. However, it hasn’t all been plain sailing thus far and we are still in the very early stages of a long process. Some individuals have expressed concerns, and a small minority are in opposition to the particular proposals we are pressing on with. I am not naive enough to think that there aren’t others wondering about how we are going to achieve such ambitions for our church when there are so many obstacles to overcome.
The simple answer of course is that we will overcome “in God’s strength.” The building project will only be realised if it is God’s will for St. James’. We may or may not end up with the proposals that are currently on the table. But we know that our vision is to create a space where people can encounter God, where the church family can be equipped for mission and service, and where the Kingdom of God is extended to our wider community. Whatever is built out of bricks and mortar on the site at St. James’ will fulfil those purposes. That’s our church vision, and the building extension must meet that vision. Anything else simply will not do.
We will only get one chance to add to what we currently have and so the Enlarging the Tent Committee have agreed that we must be as ambitious as we can, bearing in mind the limitations of the site and wanting to honour the principles of retaining as much heritage as we can. But we are not a church dwelling in the past, but one looking at the present in faith-filled expectancy for what God will do through us in the future.
I remember as a young teenager, I used to get severe pain in my chest and shoulders as I grew. They were what we all call “growing pains”. It was uncomfortable at times, but absolutely necessary. St. James’ is starting to feel these pains as we grapple with the reality set before our very eyes. God is asking us about the legacy that we are going to leave for future generations of brothers and sisters in Christ who will worship in our church. God is asking us how big our vision is to see his Kingdom come, and, moreover, whether we have faith to believe the promises he’s given us.
We have already had signs and confirmations that God is indeed hinting that we must press on. The challenge now is to press on with God’s vision for us, to be the answer to our own prayers.
The local church building is a beacon for the gospel in the wider community. It stands as a sign of God’s presence in a geographical area. It serves as a rallying point for God’s family so that they can be exhorted to godly living and living our Christ’s love in the place where God has set them. Yes, the Church is the people. The Church is a family. But families need houses, and not just houses, but homes.
Only was this reality made clear to me last night as I watched Bethel Community Church burn down whilst at a party in Newport. A congregation – a family – of 200 people who do wonderful things in the name of Jesus for the city of Newport have now been left homeless and will now start to rebuild from the ashes.
Yes, they are very much alive despite the building being gone, as Pastor Andrew Cleverly has said on Facebook, but to the rest of the community, it cannot be denied that the building itself is also symbolic of the Kingdom of God, even if they cannot phrase it in such terms; there is much sadness being expressed on social media both for the church family, but also because their precious building has been destroyed. Our prayers are for them as they now build for the future. In the meantime, churches across Newport are gathering round them to support them in the weeks and months that lie ahead.
As the family St. James’ in Rudry work out what God is calling them to, my prayer is that those of us fortunate enough to have buildings will be those who are good stewards of them, believing that they have been given us by God to proclaim the gospel. It is also my prayer that we would continue to see that they are fit for the purposes of church growth through evangelism & mission, and that we would be courageous enough to keep check that we don’t become controlled by sentimentalism.