On opening church buildings for private prayer

We should open our buildings for private prayer as soon as we can. Not for the members, but as a mission opportunity.

This week it seems likely that the First Minister will announce that Scotland is moving to Phase 2 of our lifting of lockdown, which includes the opening of places of worship for private prayer—a move made this past weekend in the rather less orderly English system.

I suspect that for most Baptists, the instinctive response will be to shrug; our spirituality does not have that sense of sacred space, or at least not of ecclesially-authorised sacred space. We might have our own ‘thin places’, where for us ‘prayer has been valid’, but they are probably not significantly connected to local church buildings.

I think this response would be a mistake.

There are a few Baptist churches around the UK that, before lockdown, were in the habit of keeping their buildings open for private prayer—I think of Bloomsbury Central B.C. in London as the example I perhaps know best; the doors are generally open, and a small room to the right of the front of the sanctuary—presumably once a vestry—is set aside as a space to pray. I’ve known the ministers of Bloomsbury over the past 20 years or so—Brian Haymes; Ruth Gouldbourne; Simon Woodman—and although I’ve never particularly discussed this aspect of their ministry with any of them, every passing reference they made suggested that it was not a facility offered for, or used by, the church members, but rather for passers by, seeking a quiet reflective space in the energy and noise of central London.

Our buildings should be open, if they can be, not for members, but for non-members.

I think of a friend, around my age, who recently rediscovered a faith she had walked away from as a child. She started to come to our church, but, having outgrown our building, we meet in a local school hall. Her searching spirit wanted a space that looked, felt sacred—the P.E. charts that we cheerfully ignore (and long to cheerfully ignore again…) were an impediment, a stumbling block, to her.

Another church, lacking a building of their own, was borrowing our church building of a Sunday morning; she joined there. I think now if they moved out she would be happy enough; she has been well discipled into a broadly evangelical spirituality that emphasises the holiness of the community that meets, rather than that of the room it meets in.

If someone wanted to narrate her recent story in Pauline terms of valuing the indifferent things that seem important to those of weak/immature faith, I suspect she would not be offended. Paul’s point in Rom. 14 is that we should in fact value these things, because nurturing nascent faith matters. Equally, although slightly differently, it matters that we provide seekers with comfortable ways to discover the truth of the gospel and the glory of our King Jesus.

I suspect her spiritual sensibilities are not unusual: there are a significant number of people in the UK who, if moved to search for a genuine encounter with God, would look to a church building as the right place to begin that search. Some may have cultural memories of what church ‘should’ be; some may be coming from other religious traditions, and bringing those traditions’ assumptions about sacred space with them; some may just need to do something kinaesthetic to demonstrate to themselves that they are serious.

Of course, as they find the truth, and as we have the privilege of discipling them into maturity, we will want to insist that being close to Jesus is what matters, and that being close to Jesus comes from being in covenant community, not from being in ecclesiastical buildings.

But if stepping into the building is going to be the first step on that journey to Life for some, perhaps for many, we ought to do what we can to have the door of the building open, particularly if, as is being regularly suggested at the moment, there are significant signs of spiritual awakening across the U.K. just now.

For some of us it will of course be impossible to open the building. Perhaps other urgent mission opportunities—running the local foodbank, e.g.—are taking all our efforts; perhaps we cannot, with the resources we have, open the building safely; perhaps, like the apostles, we have no building to open.

But if we can open the building, I suggest that we should—for missional, not pastoral, reasons.

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