I had intended to write more about Hudson Taylor this week- I will try to return to him next week. But the main thing on everybody’s mind here is the formal opening of our new church building on Sunday- so, much as it would suit my historical brain, it would feel like an odd time to be writing about the 19th century.
As we look at the new building and consider everything that has taken place over the last few years, we have so much for which to be thankful. I am reminded of the privilege of being in a church which is marked by generosity. People have given extravagantly in financial terms and the building committee have given lavishly of their time and emotional resources. The project has not been without its setbacks- delays in starting, funding applications that took immense amount of time (particularly having been lost from a computer) which were rejected and tough decisions that had to be made- but the building committee have shown immense perseverance. Generations to come will be in their debt.
I am immensely grateful for how little I have had to do. My carefully cultivated and deserved reputation for being clueless when it comes to anything practical has been useful. At one point in the process, though, I seem to recall being asked for some theological and biblical reflections on the project. I can’t at the moment remember what meeting these were presented to or whether anybody found them remotely helpful- but I’ve dug them out of my file and I want to reflect on them here. I’m sure the Building Committee will offer more personal- and more moving- testimony on Sunday but here are my observations (most of which are blindingly obvious) on how to apply biblical principles to building projects.
1. Building Projects are worth doing- provided they are done for the benefit of others.
I had always been something of a building project sceptic. That may be because I have tended to be somewhat oblivious to my surroundings but also because there were so many other needs around that were worthy of financial support. After all wouldn’t a building project be somewhat self-serving? There was one main thought that turned me round- namely that it wasn’t godly to hand on a mess to the next generation. That we have had a building to meet in for the last few decades was down to the generosity of our forebears. We had a choice- to pass on a crumbling and dilapidated building to our successors or to be generous. I am glad that we chose the latter option.
In addition, and I think this has become evident throughout the process, we want to be generous to our local community. We’ve recently sent leaflets round the local streets. “We don’t want to keep our buildings to ourselves,” we say. We do want this to be a place where the local community can come together and where we play our part in being welcoming, offering help for those struggling and the best news of all to everybody.
I think we can genuinely say that the sense around the church has been that this isn’t simply- or even primarily- for our benefit. That’s a good motivation for a building project.
2. The physical matters- to an extent.
I think one of the challenges of a building project is to hold different biblical doctrines in their right perspective. It seems to me that two perspectives are necessary.
Firstly, we need to remember that the physical does matter. In my more sceptical days, I suspect I espoused the truth that buildings don’t convert people- only the Spirit does. That’s true enough at one level but it denies the reality that God has created a physical universe. Beauty matters. If something looks depressing we are more likely to end up depressed. Physical people struggle to hear God’s Word if they are being suffocated by ancient heaters whilst listening to it. There is always a danger of a super spirituality that denies the doctrine of creation.
However- and this is possibly the truth that we need to remember now- there are limits to that. The things that will really commend the Gospel according to the New Testament are not lovely buildings but loving relationships. The thing that converts people according to 1 Cor 14 is not a pleasant environment but a sense of God being amongst His people as He speaks. And so we must pray…
As I look back I am thankful that, by the Lord’s grace, this balance was retained. Many have worked exceptionally hard on the building project. Yet it hasn’t come to dominate church life. I’ve mentioned it relatively infrequently during sermons. I don’t think I’ve mentioned giving to the project once during a sermon. The normal business of hearing God speak, praying, building each other up and so on has continued. I think that has been the right way of holding on to the relative importance of a building project.
3. It is right to push on the subject of money- but be cautious about the “We just need faith!” line
There is a biblical balance to be had here as well. I think there were probably three or four occasions during the project when the church was specifically asked to contribute money. How often you do this is a wisdom call- you don’t want church life to be dominated by the issue. However, as I look back, I think this was the right thing to do. It is very easy for us as humans to hold on to more money than we need and to use it for selfish ends rather than the glory of God. The Bible is not ashamed to offer repeated calls to beware love of money and Paul and others are not afraid to call people to give. I have been thrilled by how generously the church has responded. Considering our size, I am astonished by the amount that has come in and how much good work has been done.
At various points, decisions had to be made about how much you should look to spend on a building- especially when not all the money had come in. At this point you are often into questions of faith- do you trust the Lord to provide? In general terms my instinct is to push towards boldness and away from caution- after all the Lord is well able to provide. However, I do think there are dangers here. It seems to me that the essence of faith is that we believe what God has said. And we know that God has promised to provide what we need. But that still leaves a decision that has to be made- what do we actually need? After all this is different from what we might want in an ideal universe. If I’m candid I have seen other building projects that haven’t got off the ground because a church was waiting for the Lord to provide a huge sum where it may have been appropriate to ask whether the Lord was indicating that their needs were less than they thought. In our case, I think we have looked to respond to genuine needs- how wonderful to see how the Lord has met them.
4. The Importance of Contentment
At one point in our discussions the verse from 1 Timothy 6 was cited- “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” From memory it was at a time when we were slightly short of money for all that we wanted to do. We were due to have one more request to the church. I think we had resolved that we would accept the outcome of this last appeal and proceed accordingly on the basis that this was what the Lord had given us even if it meant doing less than all we had hoped.
As it happens, I think the Lord has given us more than we ever dreamed. I was expecting a slightly better version of our old building: it feels much more like a complete re-build. The Lord has truly been good to us. And looking back we have reasons for contentment even in some of the more difficult elements of the project. The building we now have is vastly better than the one we would have had if we had started a year earlier. The vast majority of the funding has come from within the church despite not all of our funding applications to external bodies being successful. And there’s more that I can say- we can very much look back with thanksgiving on the Lord’s providence.
We are looking forward to Sunday. As I say- we will hear more personal testimony on that occasion. But I wanted to offer these biblical perspectives- and my observations that these have proved very true in our experience. Maybe they will be helpful- should the Lord not return first- to the next Woody Road Building Committee, perhaps in a couple of generations’ time?