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Assets 246Assets not Burdens: using church property to accelerate mission  

From a research report by The Centre for Theology & Community

In February 2017, The Centre for Theology & Community published a report on research into how 85 churches of all denominations use their buildings in the London Borough of Islington. The report shows that almost every church actively serves its local community. But it also demonstrates the extent to which church buildings are underused. 

Key findings regarding usage were:

  • The total estimated weekly Sunday attendance of 16,900  is equivalent to 8% of the local population
  • 23 churches (27%) are renting. All of the churches which rent said that they would prefer to own their own premises.
  • 62 churches (73%) own their own buildings. Between them, they own 59 worship spaces, 76 church halls and 149 meeting rooms.
  • Many of the ‘owning’ churches are active in terms of property redevelopment; nearly half are either undertaking a redevelopment project on part of their property or are about to start one.
  • Nearly every single church is using its buildings to benefit the community in some way, either by providing church-run activities or hosting the activities of other organisations. 
  • The overall utilisation of church spaces is relatively low. Church spaces lie empty and unused for the majority of the week:
    • Church halls are empty 57% of the week
    • Church worship spaces are empty 69% of the week
    • Church meeting rooms are empty 75% of the week
  • For the 62 ‘owning’ churches in Islington, the average gross annual income from property is £34,500 per church per year, which is £2.1m per year.
  • 75% of local churches want to see increased community use of their buildings.
  • 43% of churches also want ‘advice and support’ on how to go about letting out space more frequently

CTC estimated the potential lettings income which churches in Islington could secure if they increased the usage of church spaces. Across the 62 ‘owning’ churches, increasing lettings to a reasonable usage level would generate an additional £64,000 per church per year on average. In total, for all of these churches, this would be an additional £4m of gross income per year. For every £1 of income which churches are currently receiving from lettings income, they could be generating a further £2.85 per year, even on modest assumptions.

There is enormous potential for each denomination to increase its income by making use of existing assets. There are sound reasons why many local churches do not make more of their buildings – in many cases they simply do not have the time, skills or capacity to do so.

Reflecting on use of buildings, CTC pointed out that having permanent church buildings obvioulsy makes organising church life easier. They are a physical base to run activities from. They offer a tangible sign to the wider community of our presence and worship. They can have great theological significance for certain denominations. People find such places helpful in coming closer to God – spaces where there is less distraction and a more obvious focus on the things of God. 

However, churches which own buildings must guard against idolatry – the risk that we come to love certain places and buildings too much and lose sight of their role in helping us to worship and become the thing we worship instead. Secondly, there is a risk of pietism. Focus on loving God alone and ignoring our neighbour leads us to an otherworldly pietism. To focus on loving our neighbour but neglecting God leads to secularism. Just as our calling has two sides, belonging together, so our church buildings as a whole should rightly serve both purposes. For certain denominations, a church worship space is indeed for worship alone, but the rest of the church’s buildings (halls, meeting rooms, houses) have no such restrictions. For nearly all other denominations, even the worship space itself can be used for a variety of purposes as well, as long as this is done responsibly.

CTC then showcased three case studies - stories of three churches and how they have responded to the challenge of making good use of their buildings:

1. Creating and reviving church spaces to increase mission:  Hope Church, Islington
This is a story of revival, redevelopment and partnership in the Anglican church of St David, Holloway which has seen old buildings brought back into use, new flexible spaces created and all of them now actively managed to support the mission of the church. 

2. Church partnerships for the 21st Century: the Ethiopian Christian Fellowship Church      
This is a story of a new ‘diaspora’ church putting down roots in the UK and taking ownership of an old church to bring new life into it. It also includes a role reversal where a new pentecostal church now rents space to an Anglican church.

3. Active church property management: St Paul, Old Ford, Tower Hamlets     
This is a story of a lively local church which actively manages its spaces to build up the life of the church and serve the local community.

CTC recommends that the solution to many of the church’s building challenges is actually mission - which leads to church growth. We need a change of mindset. Our buildings are assets which can be used for mission. There is an opportunity here that some churches are already taking.

Increasing the community and missional use of churches not only opens church doors to new relationships and visibly serves the local community but it could also generate significant income. CTC suggest that improving the pro-active management of church buildings across the board is a theological, missional and financial imperative.

Any response should have two key features:

  1. Each denomination needs a strategic response to these opportunities – simply leaving local churches to deliver solutions for themselves is completely unrealistic.
  2. If each denomination is prepared to work with others then an ecumenical approach is not only possible but may even yield greater results.

Download the report here.

Tim Thorlby, Director CTC states, "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."

See also an earlier blog by Kelvin Sampson on Life changing buildings.

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From a Centre for Theology & Community report, 28/02/2017

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