How can a town-centre church attract those who regularly pass it by? Michael Fisher describes on church’s strategy – open doors, and an innovative project which aims to illuminate faith as well as history
Last summer, as I watched fishing boats sailing in and out of a harbour, two images of the Church came into my mind: the trawler and the lobster-pot. Trawler fishermen head out to sea knowing where shoals of fish are to be found and netted. Lobster fishermen operate in different waters, closer to shore, where they bait their pots and wait for the catch to come to them. So there are ‘trawler-churches’ and ‘lobster-pot churches.’
The trawler-church serves a readily identifiable community, with housing estates, schools, retirement homes, pubs and clubs. Engaging in mission means trawling well-known fishing-grounds. The lobster-pot is typified by the town-centre church which has little or no resident population, but is full of offices, shops and banks, and has an eclectic congregation drawn from beyond its environs. A different mission strategy is required: that of ‘baiting the pot’ in such as way as to attract a part of that vast but fluid and ever-changing populace who frequent the town-centre, but who do not actually belong to it.
Ministry of welcome
St Chad’s, Stafford, is one such ‘lobster-pot’ church. Situated on the main street of a county town, its Grade II* listed status and fine Norman stone-carvings already draw in the historically- and archaeologically-minded, but the fact that the church is set back a few feet from the street-front and hemmed-in by modern buildings means that others just pass it by. ‘I’ve lived in Stafford all my life, but I’ve never been in here before,’ is a frequent comment of visitors.
A danger facing eclectic, town-centre churches is that they may adopt a clubhouse mentality which thinks it sufficient to open the building only when its members gather for worship. Not all have twelfth-century stone-carvings or listed status to draw people in; but regardless of its architectural status, a church with its doors shut gives out the wrong message, especially if it is the only closed-up building on a busy high street.
The open church, with things happening on weekdays as well as Sundays, and volunteer stewards exercising a ministry of welcome, is a mission-orientated lobster-pot. The ideas shared by Robert Beaken [‘Mission-shaped stone,’ ND February 2006] could apply equally to a town-centre church in its work of connecting people with both faith and heritage.
This year St Chad’s has been implementing an exciting and innovative scheme, which we hope will take our annual visitor numbers beyond 10,000. On 2 March 2005, St Chad’s Day, the Bishop of Ebbsfleet presided at our patronal festival and signalled the start of a £50,000 appeal to fund the project. On 21 April 2006 Bishop Andrew will return to inaugurate TIMEWALK as it is now to be called, the fundraising having been completed in an astonishingly short time. Central to the project is a computer-generated son et lumière, which uses dramatic sound and lighting within the church to present the history of St Chad’s, 850 years of it, in a fifty-minute programme, which can be run at any time for the benefit of organized groups or casual visitors. There is also an interactive website and exhibition facilities which will help us to bring to a wider public not only the history and architecture of the church, but the faith upon which it is built.
The biggest challenge was raising the £50,000. Small fund-raising events helped, as did the management of the Swan Hotel, right opposite the church, who joined our body of patrons and organized collections. There were individual and corporate donations, while local historical societies and the Staffordshire Historic Churches Trust wrote to fund-holders in support of the project.
Presenting the faith
It was however the Heritage Lottery Fund which provided the biggest slice of the funding. Making a successful HLF bid demands hard work and expertise, but this was to be found within the congregation, along with many hidden skills and talents which were discovered and utilized in the production itself. The innovative nature of the project drew favourable comment from HLF: the first of its kind, they said.
HLF’s positive attitude towards the faith element within the project surprised us. TIMEWALK, and the associated static displays, pull no punches when it comes to saying who we are and what we stand for; but far from raising any objections to Lottery cash being used, even indirectly, to present the faith as a part of our heritage, the HLF advisers even enquired as to how we would accommodate visitors who might wish to pray or simply to be quiet, at times when presentations and exhibitions were in progress, and this is an issue that we have had to address.
The Heritage Lottery Fund will always consider applications from churches for specific projects, provided that they meet their own criteria, which include benefit to the wider community; and clearly they encourage innovative ways of presenting and sharing the heritage. Apart from the buildings themselves, human resources are the greatest asset to lobster-pot mission. St Chad’s congregation is far from large (53 on the electoral roll), but within it are those who dreamed dreams, turned them into a viable vision of what the church could become, and then drove it for all it was worth into the offices of the Heritage Lottery Fund. We cannot be unique in that respect.
(Michael Fisher is non-stipendiary
priest-in-charge of St Chad’s, Stafford, and a writer of architectural books)