I recently came across an article in a local magazine. The article was titled ‘Save the Village Chapel’ and related to a building (referred to as our ‘Beloved Village Chapel’) occupied by a local congregation of a mid-sized denomination. The building is around a hundred years old and the congregation small, elderly and declining. The denomination that it belongs to has itself been in significant decline for many years. The building itself is now in need of structural repairs to its collapsing foundations which are failing and causing cracking to the superstructure for which donations are being sought.
The article refers to various activities the building has been used for over its history – performances by classical musicians, market stalls, community and youth activities, as well as gatherings for Worship. Yet the result of these ‘activities’ has been ongoing decline which actually mirrors the state of the building.
The ‘Sadness’ included in the title of this article is because, while funds are being raised to carry out very expensive repairs to the building, to use the title of the book by Michael Griffiths, it’s a bit like a ‘Cinderella with Amnesia’ exercise. That is, it appears from the article that while the Church (building) may be raised from the ‘ashes’ of its current state of disrepair, it seems that the congregation has forgotten its primary reason for existence.cinder
That purpose is to build not with stones, concrete, or brick, but with ‘Living Stones’ added to the spiritual building that is the Body of Christ (1 Peter 2:5). Restoring the building will only restore what was previously the case, i.e. a small, elderly and declining congregation effectively on life-support, that is relying on fundraising activities or external funding sources rather than live giving to survive, and still failing to win new members for Christ.
The ’Sadness’ comes with seeing a group of, I am sure very faithful and good-hearted, people prioritising the physical building rather than looking for better, more culturally appropriate, ways to invest God’s resources in growing the spiritual body of Christ; a congregation that, rather than creating what needs to be, is hanging on to what has been. The sad result being that without the development of a very different mindset, ongoing decline is still the future that beckons.
There is more than a ‘Sadness’ here however, there is Tragedy. The Tragedy is that the ‘Beloved Chapel’ serves as a Metaphor for the Church generally. For there are many hundreds, even thousands, of ‘Beloved Chapels’ across the country; small, elderly congregations hanging on by their financial fingernails, desperately putting all their meagre and dwindling resources into maintaining old, missionally inappropriate buildings, many of which haven’t added a ‘Living Stone’ to the ‘spiritual’ building in years.
The emotional attachment to such buildings is understandable. I have such an attachment to the thousand years-old stone church-building that stands in a paddock in the rural English Midlands, which three previous generations of my forbears attended. However, it barely holds a service anymore, requires considerable maintenance, yet occupies a sizeable and valuable piece of land. This begs the question as to whether this is a good use of God’s resources.
The ‘Beloved Chapel’ is a Metaphor for much that is contributing to the decline of the Western church, a Metaphor that should cause us to ask, and answer, some very uncomfortable questions. One of these is – ‘Are we making the best Kingdom-use of God’s resources?’