By the time you read this, the St John Ambulance HQ will be ours and twenty-two years waiting will be at an end. God has given us that building for our own. And it would have seemed strange to write a letter from the manse at this point and not to have commented on such a major event in our life as a church. Ever since we covenanted together to form a church back in 1984 we’ve been searching, praying, waiting for a building of our own. It was about the same time that we started hiring the St John building for our Sunday meetings. But there seemed no reason to think that that would be the building we would eventually buy. Over the years we’ve looked at shop premises, pubs, community halls, industrial units, a former clinic, – and very seriously at redundant church premises. We’ve had disappointments, frustrations, disagreements, come very close to buying a place on a couple of occasions, wondered if it would ever happen. And now it seems that at last God has answered our prayers. And my heart is full of thankfulness.
Let me list some of the things for which I’m giving thanks.
I’m thankful firstly that at last we shall have a visible presence in the area. I meet people who have lived in Cheadle Heath for years and have never been aware that the church exists. Unless they happen to walk along Edgeley Road on a Sunday morning or evening and see our signs, there’s no reason they should be aware of our existence. Yes, we’ve leafleted the area lots of times, but many folk pay no attention to leaflets which come through their letterboxes. How many of the flyers delivered to your home do you read? But at last we’ll have a place marked out as a church building with a sign telling the public who we are. And we pray that some local people will step in off the street just out of curiosity, wanting to know who these strange folk are who are opening a church building at a time when other church buildings are being demolished or being turned into warehouses. The church building can be a standing reminder to the area that gospel Christianity is not dead – that God and His truth are here to stay!
I’m thankful secondly for the location of the building. One of the hardest questions we’ve faced over the years is whether we should be prepared to move our location out of the area where our work began, and where a number of our members live. Some folk have felt that if no suitable property became available in that area, we should be prepared to consider property in other areas of Stockport – even if that meant starting our work again – virtually from scratch – in a place where we would have few natural contacts. Well, there’s a lot to be said on both sides of that question. There’s no simple right or wrong on that issue. But I’m very grateful that the Lord in his kindness has made the question redundant – that he’s given us for our own the very building we’ve used over all these years! It’s not an ideal building by any means – it’s a ramshackle, prefab hut! It needs some work doing immediately to make it an attractive God-honouring place to meet. We all know its limitations. But having that building means we can build on all the work we’ve done over the years. Hundreds of children from Edgeley and Cheadle Heath have come to Sunday School in that building. Many of them are grown up now and still living in the area with children of their own. Let’s pray that all the work which first Ken, then Duncan, then Geoff did in leading the Sunday-school in that building will yet bear fruit. We’ve held Holiday Bible Clubs, Harvest Suppers, Carol Services in that building. We’ve distributed hundreds of thousands of leaflets inviting people to that building. We’ve had rowdy teenagers sitting in that building and listening for a few minutes. There’s been so much sowing in and around that building. Maybe the time of harvest is coming nearer.
In terms of potential for outreach, we couldn’t have asked for a better location – right on the main road which runs from the Cheadle motorway roundabout, past the football ground and up towards the Town Hall. It’s right in front of Morrisons superstore – the favourite place of worship for folk from all across Stockport! If we can get planning permission, we’ll put up a sign across the back of the building that will be seen by every person who drives into Morrisons car park…
I’m thankful thirdly for new opportunities that God has opened for us by giving us this building. Yes, we’ve been grateful to have the St John hall for Sunday meetings. Yes, we’ve been glad to make use of other buildings for other purposes – various schools; the Gorsey Bank Pavilion. And yes, thank God for all the members who have been willing to open their homes for meetings. God has provided for our needs wonderfully. But there have been many things we would have loved to do which we’ve never been able to do. Over these next months we can start thinking, planning, praying about possibilities. What new evangelistic ventures should we be considering? A mother and toddler group? A bible-study for folk who have come to the UK with limited English? Some midweek activity for children? A discussion group for the youngsters we meet on YO? Regular evangelistic meals? A summer Holiday Bible Club? A weekly coffee morning for elderly folk? Charlesworth-style men’s breakfasts? (Or ladies’ for that matter!). We don’t have the personnel and resources to do everything that we’d like to, but surely the Lord expects us to make full use of the resources He has entrusted to us. “To whom much is given, from him much will be expected..” And isn’t it a Bible principle that it’s when we use to the full the resources we have, that He increases them? It was when the apostles started handing out their pathetic five loaves that the Saviour turned the bread into food for five thousand.
And it’s not just evangelistic opportunities. How much easier it will be to plan a whole range of activities for mutual encouragement. Seminars, fellowship meals, day conferences, missionary meetings, inter-church gatherings for young people, lectures (I’ve been waiting for the right time and place for Roger’s lecture on historical church architecture…), and yes – times for simple fun together. Again, we must make sure we take every opportunity to build one another up and to seek fellowship with likeminded believers from other churches.
And then fourthly, and perhaps most of all, I’m thankful for the unity that we’ve experienced as we’ve moved towards this major step. We’ve learned from painful experience that a decision as big as this can become very divisive. Thank God, there’s been no hint of disharmony this time round. In part that’s been due to the fact that we decided in advance how we would tackle the matter of looking for a building. We discussed it together as a church and then appointed a committee to handle the matter. The church gave those men the responsibility for looking for the right building and then we promised that we would trust their judgement. We went further: we authorised them to make a decision and put in an offer for a property if they were all sure it was the right move. But then, how important it was that the members of that committee should work together harmoniously. They were men of very different gifts and personalities. If they had allowed any disunity to arise among themselves, how could the church as a whole have stayed united ? How thankful we should be to those men for the faithfulness with which they have fulfilled their responsibilities, and to come together to this decision. And how grateful to God who has given them the grace to play their part.
Well, I could carry on. But I’m also conscious that there are many challenges and dangers ahead. Let me list some of them.
1. It may be that the unity we’ve known so far will be severely tested in the months ahead. When it came to it, the decision to buy the St John HQ was made easier by the fact that there was no alternative building in view (another kindness of God). When there’s only one option, decision-making becomes relatively easy! But now there are going to be endless decisions to be taken – and countless options to be debated. Should we think of the present building as our meeting-place for the foreseeable future, or should we be making plans now to knock it down and put up a more solid structure? If we accept that that building is our meeting-place for the next few years at least, what should be our priorities in terms of repairing and renovating it? Do we want gas central heating or electric storage heaters? Do we want flower-beds or more parking spaces? Which is more important – new carpets or a decent PA system?
On questions like these, we’ll all have our own opinions. And that makes for danger – unless again we put the right decision-making structures in place and then all abide by the decisions that are made. The church has agreed that the deacons should co-ordinate any work that needs to be done immediately and that the present building committee should carry on their work for the next couple of months at least. But we need to look beyond that. One of the most pressing tasks for myself and the deacons over these next few weeks will be to work out how decisions are going to be taken on all these practical matters.
But there will be more important matters too on which decisions will need to be made. I’ve listed out above some of the new opportunities which we could consider – opportunities for outreach and other activities. There are so many of them! But again, that means priority decisions will have to be taken. And decisions of principle too. If we organise a midweek group for children, should it be limited to children who attend Sunday-school? Is it right to draw children in by offering games and social activities, or should it be exclusively “spiritual”? And at the other end of the scale would a group for elderly folk play dominoes with Vera Lynn as background music, or would it be another preaching meeting? Decisions over child protection policies; decisions about letting other groups use the building; decisions about flower displays (are they a distraction?) and when the season comes again, Christmas decorations… Christians have strong – and differing – views on all these issues. Some of us are going to have to read over and over again James’s words: “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for anger does not produce the righteousness that God requires…The wisdom that comes from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason…” (James 1:19, 3:17).
2. It would be easy for all our energy to become absorbed in our new building. As a church we’ve never had to be involved in maintenance, cleaning, clearing up after vandals, paying gas-bills, dealing with fire inspectors… None of us have been called from our bed by the police because the burglar alarm has gone off down at the church building. None of us have had to wait down at the hall all morning for a meter-reader who never arrived. But now… Folk from other churches warn us that these things can take up so much time and effort that little remains for the real work of the church – worship, mutual encouragement, prayer, evangelism. The treasurer of one small church told me last week that he had spent the last two years trying to pay the electricity bill for their church building. The energy company told him that they had “lost” the meter, despite having made several visits to the building to inspect it. Twenty or so phone calls later he is still no nearer to getting the matter settled. The apostles very early on saw the danger that they could be distracted from their real work by the frustrations of administration. They declared, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables…” (Acts 6: 2).
3. We may see a sudden growth in the congregation – Christians who decide to attach themselves to us now that we’re a “real church”. That has been the experience of many other churches. When they were without a building, they were more or less ignored. But once they had a building of their own, lots of folk turned up wondering if this might be the church for them. Well, that’s fine. But the problem is that many of these people bring with them their own agenda. They hope to reshape the church to fit their preferences. We shall need a great deal of wisdom to deal with such folk. We want to welcome them warmly as Christ’s sheep in need of a safe pasture. And yet we have to make it clear to them that our identity as a church is not up for grabs. We are a reformed church, committed to the whole system of doctrine preached by the reformers and their successors. We are a baptist church, practising believers’ baptism and restricted communion. We are a Bible-preaching church making the Bible central in all our meetings and rejecting any claims to continuing revelation gifts. We believe in corporate church-life – wholehearted commitment to one another, mutual discipline, full involvement. We believe in reverent worship under the leadership of men set apart for preaching and pastoral ministry. We don’t expect newcomers to understand why we take the stand we do on all these things. But we do ask them to accept the fact that these are our convictions. If they’re not willing to do so, then the outcome can be very painful – for them and for us. As we move into a new stage in the life of the church we need to be more aware than ever of Paul’s warning to “watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have received”. (Romans 16:17).
4. Having a “church building” may distort the way we think about our life as a church. In Old Testament times, God gave His people a “holy building” – a temple which they were to view as His home on earth. He promised He would dwell in the temple in a special way. But in New Testament times there are no holy buildings. God’s people are themselves the temple of God on earth – a living temple. “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16). When Christians start talking about a church building as “God’s house” or call the meeting-room a “sanctuary”, you know they’re thinking in Old Testament terms. There is nothing special or holy about a church building. It is simply a building to be used by the church – for meetings, meals, social events, children’s activities – or anything else which we believe is for God’s glory and the benefit of His kingdom.
But does it matter if we start thinking of our building as if it were a temple? Yes it does. If we start thinking like that, we may start to imagine that a church building guarantees God’s presence among us. We may find ourselves thinking that all our work for God will be much easier now. But it’s not true. Having a prayer meeting in a church building won’t make our prayers one scrap more effective. Having our preaching services in a church building won’t make the preaching any more powerful. We will not have more of God’s blessing because we meet in a church building. We won’t see more real conversions because we’re inviting friends to a church building. Our effectiveness as a church does not depend on whether we have a church building. It depends on the holiness of our lives, the quality of our love for one another, the reality of our prayers, the zeal with which we seek after God’s kingdom and righteousness.
If a church building makes us more determined to serve the Lord Jesus, then it will be a great blessing. But if we lose our sense of week by week, moment by moment dependence on God, the building will prove to be nothing but a curse. We’re entering a new phase in the life of the church. Surely this a time to renew our determination to seek the Lord’s blessing on all our work.