Back in July 1878, the Rev E.T. Prust laid the foundation stone of Abington Square Mission in the centre of Northampton.
The 1870s was an era when non-conformist missions made a massive impact in towns and cities in the UK.
As well as Sunday services, many of these missions ran ‘ragged schools’ to educate poorer children and generations of working class people found faith, community and shared purpose. As the famous quote goes, the formation of the Labour Party ‘owed more to Methodism than it did to Marx’.
Two of my former employers, The Shaftesbury Society (originally called the Ragged School Union and now Livability) and the West London Mission were two examples of this significant urban movement.
In 2019 the Abingdon Square Mission building is still there. It’s name is still proudly etched in the brickwork.
But times have changed. Today the building is home to ‘Urban Tiger’, which describes itself as the town’s ‘premier lap-dancing club.’
I am sure the owners of the club and its clientele find this change of use ironic and amusing.
The Rev E.T. Prust must be spinning in his grave. But let’s also remember the many who would have given time, money and energy to the establishing of the mission.
A building established to be an outpost of faith, hope and love into the community is now used to sell a commercialised sexual experience which exploits, cheapens and damages everyone involved. I think its tragic.
I don’t care desperately about preserving religious buildings. Two of the church’s that I have been part of have met in former pubs. And the reality is that some church buildings become under-used and some need converting for other uses.
But this example is a prime spot in the middle of a busy town centre. Right opposite, another church has opened a centre in a converted shop. Further down the road, another church is being used as a night shelter for homeless people.
Rather than buildings preservation issue, this is actually an issue of mission and unity. Mission, sharing hope in God through word and action, is what the Church exists for. How united is the Church in this commitment to reach people?
Avoiding this happening
Time and again, I have seen denominations or Christian organisations choose to sell or lease buildings on a commercial basis to prop up activity elsewhere rather than build partnerships with others. In doing so, they literally sell out on their responsibility to the local area.
I don’t know the history of this particular building but if different decisions had been made, then the Abingdon Square Mission could be a vibrant centre of contemporary Christian mission. It could be a base for a new congregation or a base for Street Pastors, Christian counselling, youth clubs or homeless people.
Whether through explicit means of preaching and teaching, or through implicit means of social action, it could be the beacon of Christian hope it was built to be.
Instead it has become the opposite.
How do we avoid this?
Those with a responsibility for church buildings should reflect on the following:
Uphold the true value of buildings. When faced with decisions about the future, trustees and governance committees of Christian buildings should do all they can to handover the use of these assets to groups which most embody the original purpose. They should establish sale conditions around future use which protect the building for Christian mission. Even if this limits the price they can get, it upholds the true value.
The irrelevance of denominational labels. Many younger Christians I speak to don’t even know what denomination their church is part of. What matters today is less the label and more the sense of community and purpose. Is the church a place where people learn of the life-changing message of God in an environment which coheres with that message? Christian buildings should be put in the hands of those who have energy and purpose to use them well.
Unity through action. The problems and challenges of our communities puts doctrinal differences into perspective. This is why social action which reaches into the community, such as Food banks, Street Pastors and Night Shelters have been so effective in building unity. These initiatives are helping to break down the tribalism that is still rife within the church.
Missional thinking. Across the country there are historic denominations who have large buildings but don’t have many people. And there are vibrant churches with many people but with no buildings. Both tend to have strengths and weaknesses and often express their faith quite differently. It is in mission and an outward focus where they can find common ground. The Church desperately needs people who can bridge these worlds and forge effective missional partnerships.
This is the thinking and commitments that may stop church buildings being turned into strip clubs.
11 thoughts on “How churches can avoid becoming strip clubs”
Jon, this is really thoughtful and gets to the heart of the tragedy and how we prevent it. Thanks for the reflection: it is the thinking behind the change of use rather than the actual change itself which is at fault – your thinking around partnership cuts to the root of our divisions and exposes our unwillingness to submit ourselves to the heart and love of the gospel. Thank you! Huw
It is indeed a tragedy when church buildings no longer promote the values of the Christian gospel. However, these are charitable assets and Trustees have to be careful when disposing of property at less than the market value. Forming a partnership to maintain the charitable purposes is an option but advice should be sought before granting a long lease or selling outright.
Of course advice is important – but the focus of this advice should be ‘what is best for the charitable objects to be maintained in this area?’ rather than the easy decision to dispose of the assets for the furtherance of the institution. The trustees should guard the overall aim not just the institution.
The charities memorandum and articles provide a clear focus – often for a fairly broad range of causes and purposes. Often this is interpreted narrowly for the benefit of the mission of that particular charity and that leads to asset stripping to keep that particular charity or denomination going.
I agree Jon. Faithful adventure and imagination required. I feel it when buildings or other assets are lost locally.
AND this highlights the strengths and weaknesses of our charity law. A narrow interpretation of reponsibility feels safer, more ‘right’ even, for busy trustees who have to work out what they think the Charities Commission thinks about Best Value.
When you are a steward of something that does not belong to you, selling one asset to sustain others can seem entirely right – afterall, our bodies do this in extreme circumstances!
And we should also wrestle with the possbility that some places have too many buildings, some of which were built out of competition, not service, and were only full at commissioning.
Thanks Matthew – you articulate the complexity well. Thanks
I concur: as you mention in your piece, the values that one wishes to uphold should be prioritised, rather than the value of the building in monetary terms. Our entire being and way of thinking, is woven through with this idea that economics must be our first consideration. It ends up with financial considerations trumping all else. Of course, priorities do not mean that all else is cast aside: it means what do we consider first? What do we consider most important? By starting with value, not values, we are already off to the wrong start… But prioritising values does not mean we ignore wisdom and financial responsibility. It just means starting from a different perspective.
Great article thank you. Spot on. For churches facing tough financial or legal issues can I suggest the well known Christian charity stewardship (I’m a trustee). We have 115 years of financing and advising churches. Our services are available to all. Also could I (with attribution) share your post on my blog? Thanks again for a terrific article
Of course – and yes, I fully endorse getting the legal and financial wisdom of a Christian charity like Stewardship. The clue is in the name! Thanks Jeremy
this is an excellent article and how true! In this town, there was a very narrow and exclusive church whose exclusivity had the inevitable consequences. Its premises are now a mosque.
I remember your wonderful family from St Michael’s Blackheath a lifetime or so ago. I hope you are all doing well and it is great to read your post here. God bless, Jonathan
Thanks for your comment and encouragement Jonathan!