Some years ago I read how important it was for churches to make their buildings available for community use, without which we would all be the poorer, something the government wanted to encourage. I have seen numerous examples where this has happened, not just by churches wanting to do their “thing” in the community, sometimes with the agenda to bring souls into the kingdom, but also by just making the premises available to whoever in the community can make use of them and will benefit others.
There are of course practical issues such as the suitability of buildings and logistical matters. Forward thinking churches, when they plan new buildings, often think what is needed if these were to be made available for wider community use and often renovations and improvements are done with this question in mind. It is surprising how adaptable and creative one can be but I do have a wry smile thinking of the seven church homeless night shelters in my town, none of which are entirely suitable and in fairness was not a past consideration. As for logistics, things like insurance, security, caretaking, partnership agreements, policies, health and safety, building regulations, legal requirements and money matters all need to be considered if wanting to give over buildings to community use.
Churches vary as to how well they have these matters covered and there are huge differences in approach, and often that depends on things like the building, resources and vision. Having been one of the responsible persons, for some 25 years, for the use of a chapel, conveniently situated in the centre of the town, that closed eighteen months ago, I became well aware of a number of these issues. Given our small numbers, we decided we weren’t in a position to make our building extensively available for wider community use, but we could do so on a small scale, especially when linked to what we were doing anyway, and we did so successfully. In the church that I attend currently, the issue of building maintenance and expansion has inevitably arose and in giving my own two penneth worth to church meeting discussions etc. I have urged members to think about community use e.g. when planning such matters as a new kitchen and exploring ideas of how to extend the building. Right now there is an opportunity to expand by taking over a nearby site, although this has enormous ramifications, not least cost. This has given rise to heart searching and realization we need to seek God’s will.
Looking further afield, I am aware of a number of churches in my town that have added new developments in order to better serve the local community, and this is to be commended. I can think of one church especially that has brilliant facilities, including hosting conferences and events, and has supported me over the years in my community activism. I smile wryly when I think how they agonised over which activities tie in with the churches aims and objectives and, while respecting their right to decide, have reason to sometimes question how they decide who they let use and who they don’t.
This brings me to a piece I read today with the title: “Diocese backs church over turning away yoga class” and tells of “a church that ended a yoga class’s use of its hall because the activity’s roots are incompatible with the Christian faith, but has received support from its diocese“. I suspect even with earnest Christians opinions will differ as to whether the church was right to make this decision, especially noting the class had been using that building for nine years and there seems to have been no problem during that time. In fairness to the church, it did give reasonable notice and also gave a rent rebate by way of compensation. As with the church that has helped me out in my community activism, others I am aware of have been faced with similar situations and such matters need to be aired.
The statement by the church giving the reason for their decision was “The primary purpose of these buildings is the worship of God as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. Yoga means the union of mind, body and spirit. By definition, therefore, Yoga is a spiritual activity whose roots are not Christ centred“. Some will support this; others will disagree. If not yoga then something else perhaps, e.g. should the church choose not to host a bingo club as it may be seen to encourage gambling? Or more subtly, refuse to host a government training initiative for reaching disaffected young people, like the one I once attended, that spouted all sorts of ungodly nonsense, yet I doubt that church would have entertained a yoga class or bingo club.
While I can see the wrongs in yoga and bingo (even though I would think most would see these activities as harmless fun), I am undecided were it up to me whether or not to allow such activities on church premises, although the final decision would likely depend on the circumstances, including the views of members. One pertinent factor is to do with multi-purpose use of halls. Some churches have one main hall for worship that has to be used for everything else and that would surely affect decisions, although I must say I salute those who can turn around use of a largish open space from entertaining a group of rowdy youngsters or problematic homeless folk into a place for beholding the glory of God, and deep down I feel God approves. Other churches have separate halls and will be more adept at maintaining the sanctity of the sanctuary, yet still the church will do well to decide on its community vision.
More often than not, when churches were built in the past, it was for the glory of God. I feel thus compelled to ask the question: do we glorify him more by restricting what goes on to that which we deem wholesome (and if so on what criteria) or by letting church buildings be used by the wider community, based on the idea of offering Christian hospitality? Sometimes it needs to be stressed that the answer is not always as black and white as we might want to think.