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’.
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.