Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Present Challenges: 4. Church Buildings

I had to work away from Hong Kong for a few days which has rather set me back on my work here and it has taken a little time to catch up. So here after some delay is the second part on church buildings.

Present Challenges: 4. Church Buildings

Part Two: Easier said than done

‘The Church is the people, not the building.’

How often have I heard this said in my Christian life and ministry? As I have tried to explain in part one of this blog, I think it is more complicated than that and that the relationship between the people, who form the congregation, with the building they meet in is not quite as simple as this saying suggests. It certainly is not simple for me here.

Space is fantastically at a premium in Hong Kong. My parish in Banchory covered an area of about 400 square miles with about 12,000 people. Hong Kong is also an area of 400 square miles, but with a population of 7 million people! Very few people live in houses, most live in apartments in high rise buildings, often what would be regarded as small apartments by people in the UK where I come from. This means that many Churches cannot afford a church building and meet instead in schools or even office space.

Christ Church, then, is extremely fortunate to have a building of its own and a relatively large one at that. It was built in the late 1930s and can seat 250 people comfortably. It is in every way like an English parish church building of the same period, which is not surprising given British influence on Hong Kong. Attached to the main church building is a smaller building with toilets, storage space and a multi-function room. We also have a larger church hall within a newly built block at the school next door. The school has use of this during the week, and the Church uses it only rarely because most of the time the multi-function room at the Church serves most of our needs.

The church building is used for two services on a Sunday, for school services during the week, and whatever weddings or funerals there happen to be. The rest of the time it is locked up. It is quite a landmark on Waterloo Road on the way to the New Territories and to China. The multi-function room is known as the Committee Room and that gives the clue to its main use!

Seventy years old is old for a building in Hong Kong, and it has to be said that the climate is not kind to buildings like ours. There are, of course, always maintenance issues with any building, but maintenance is a particular issue for us. When I arrived the roofs of the buildings attached to the church and to the Vicarage were leaking like sieves in the rainy season. The Church itself, while in generally good condition, also needed some renovation.

What is more the government had made available a considerable amount of money for schools to improve their premises. For us at DPS, the School next to the Church, (about which I have written earlier at some length), this meant demolishing the existing stand alone church hall and building a new 5 storey block containing a new church hall. It was officially opened earlier this year. It was big project taking a few years to complete, but I won’t bore you with the details!

In other words, since being here I have found my time being taken up with buildings to a very significant extent. In addition to the work on the School and church hall, we have re-roofed the flat roofs, replaced all the windows in the church, repaired the external brickwork, repainted the exterior and interior of the church, installed a new pa system as well as all the minor ongoing repairs that have been needed - like replacing the electrics! I have been extremely fortunate in that the Church has given generously to finance this programme of work. Their continuing generosity is a mark of how committed people are to the church and its buildings. We are now about to embark on a major interior refurbishment of the buildings attached to the Church. It is also our hope to install stained glass in the church building itself to enhance its beauty. (Although we are having trouble finding an artist who is able to help!)

I believe in all this and am committed to making it work and to ensuring that the work is done and done well. It does, however, take a great deal of time. And this is where the challenge comes. Firstly, quite simply, work on buildings leaves less time for the work I have always felt most committed to doing, that is, preaching and teaching. Inevitably and rightly, the responsibility for getting the work done and supervising it while it is being done falls to me. The congregation is supportive, but they don’t live here, I do and it really is part of my job as the Vicar.

Secondly, though, it is extremely hard to get people to meet during the week. I think that this is a phenomenon in many churches both in and outside of Hong, especially in congregations where men and women have successful, professional careers.

In an age when often both partners are working, and are often working long hours, by the time they get home from work, see their children, and attend to domestic matters, the last thing they feel like doing is going out to a church meeting – many of which are boring and unnecessary anyway! If I had to spend a couple of hours sitting in traffic to get home after a long and demanding day’s work, I wouldn’t want to go out either.

But this raises the question of how we function as a Church and how those of us with pastoral responsibilities can encourage and help people to grow spiritually. I am concerned that I am spending so much time on the church building and not enough on building the Church. The challenge occurs because many want the building looked after and there for them when they need it, but don’t want much more besides. It suits people to see the Church as the building for if they ensure it is in good condition, then they can feel they have fulfilled a significant part of their Christian responsibility and don’t have to worry about spending additional time, they can ill afford, meeting during the week.

The fact that we do not meet much outside of regular Sunday worship, which is, of necessity, in the church building, and that so much of our time in Committees and the like is spent on discussing building matters, also, inevitably, reinforces the attitude that the building is the Church. Of course, it is more complex than that and I am generalizing horribly. But, I think it is inescapable that the time and emphasis spent on the building strengthens the reluctance for social reasons to meet in small groups during the week! It is a vicious circle: the feeling of being too busy to meet, justified because there is no need to meet anyway.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I, too, love our building and want to see well cared for. I do not want meetings for the sake of them. Many meetings I have to go to as a clergyman I find an unbelievable, even sinful, waste of time. But if a church is to be the body of Christ, a living temple, growing in the love and knowledge of the Lord then it needs fellowship and teaching. How can that teaching and fellowship be provided in a congregation where people have the lifestyles that people in my congregation have and where there is such a strong focus and emphasis on buildings?

It is a real challenge.

No comments: