Old Buildings, New Life
Two and a half years ago the church I pastor launched a second Sunday congregation in a different part of town. That congregation first met in a fish and chip restaurant on Poole Quay. While a historic building itself – one of the remaining quayside lofts – it was very far indeed from what most people imagine when they hear the word ‘church’. That had some benefits: ‘the church in the fish and chip shop’ attracts a certain amount of attention; and I enjoyed us singing and preaching seated around restaurant tables and with the smell of frying oil wafting around. We outgrew that space, though, and moved upmarket – to a steak restaurant further along the Quay. Unfortunately this was a short-term arrangement, as some of the residents in the flats about the steakhouse failed to appreciate our singing at 9.30 on a Sunday morning. So we moved again, to the furthest limits of Poole Quay, and a room in a hotel. Maybe more practical then our first two venues, but not so funky, nor so fun.
Then, earlier this year, we were invited to share the use of the oldest church building in Poole by the existing, and dwindling, congregation. Skinner Street URC is set just back off Poole Quay, and is repository to some remarkable stories. In the 19th century a congregation of a thousand gathered there, and the Sunday school had over one hundred workers. Out of this church other churches were planted in Poole and Bournemouth, and mission work to Newfoundland (a key trading partner with Poole) undertaken. Even into the 1970s several hundred people filled the pews each Sunday.
Sadly the vibrant life that once characterised Skinner Street has declined, but we have been motivated by the stories it contains, and are excited to think we could be part of this buildings future. Perhaps, in years to come, there will again be stories of new life and gospel growth coming out of that wonderful building.
Then, at the end of July this year, just as I was about to go away on holiday, we were contacted about a Methodist church building that was coming up for sale, in another part of Poole. I thought it would be of no interest, but went for a look – I like looking around old buildings. Once I saw it, I wanted it. This was a building with a lot of potential. I also then discovered that some of my current congregation had been part of that church in the 1970s, when it had a thriving youth and twenties group. Indeed, one of my current elders came to faith there, and was then married there. Those are the kind of stories to treasure, and build on!
August is a terrible month to launch a capital campaign – especially when the team leader is disappearing on holiday for two weeks. But my team agreed: we had to take a swing at this one. We knew that meant raising a lot of money – more money in a shorter space of time than we had ever previously managed, as offers had to be in by September 4th. I had faith for £100,000; in the event, £108,000 came through. With a mortgage already agreed in principle, this enabled us to make an offer on the building by the closing date for informal tenders, and last Monday we were told that our bid had been successful. Solicitors have been instructed, wheels are in motion, and in a few weeks we should get the keys.
This building is on a busy high street in Poole. It is ideally placed for all kinds of community use, and our plan is that in a years time we will plant another congregation there. One day – in faith we ask it! – we will see it full again, of people praising Jesus.
When Nehemiah stood on the wall of Jerusalem and refused to come down in response to the threats of Tobiah and Sanballat it was an act of spiritual defiance. In the contemporary UK, when a congregation shrinks to the point it can no longer sustain itself, the expectation is that the building it called home will become shops or houses or perhaps a mosque. When, rather than this happening, other Christians lay claim to the building, it is not only a matter of bricks and mortar: it is an act of spiritual defiance. It is an enacted statement of faith that Jesus is king, that the nations belong to him, and that on this piece of physical territory the kingdom of God is going to be demonstrated.
Three years ago this was just a dream. Today it is beginning to take solid shape, brick upon brick, stone upon stone.
I am very happy!