Climbing walls and coffee shoppes: Transforming meetinghouses and cities in the UK

Tom Albright, RIPPLE Allentown,

This summer I spent two weeks in the United Kingdomtraveling by train to visit eight distinctly unique Urban Expression gatherings. As pastor of Ripple, an inner city, missional Anabaptist congregation in Allentown, Pa., I went to observe, learn and “compare notes.” Each gathering and each family that I visited had a uniqueness and creative energy related to and reflecting its neighborhood, culture, size, resources and leadership. I had never encountered so many different faith expressions in such a short time or been able to experience them so honestly and openly. Each church had its struggles, joys, cutting edges and things that were changing. All had a belief that God had called them to the city, to these people; they loved the people in their neighborhoods.

Playground built on a vacant lot by E1 Community Church in East London as a safe place for neighborhood children to play. Photo by Gay Brunt Miller

Some groups had old buildings, while some had newer buildings. Some had no buildings but gathered in homes, or pubs, or community spaces. While walking in BristolI saw a steady flow of people entering and leaving a large and, undoubtedly, old church building. Curious, I went inside and found a climbing gym. Children climbed the walls in what might have been the Sunday School rooms. More advanced climbers made it to the top of the sanctuary and others tackled the bell tower. In all the church buildings I visited, this was the only single-use facility.

At St. Mark’s Baptist Church in Bristol, I had a great lunch prepared by volunteers with a bill that was “pay what you could” in the church’s new cafe. The place was full. The building’s double balconies in the sanctuary held an eclectic display of artwork by local artists and school children. There were rooms that were refurnished for students with special needs and other spaces for community arts programs. In another part of the turn-of-the-century building, the church planned to begin a food bank in cooperation with the local citizens and grocery stores. All of this was open on a summer Saturday afternoon.

I found churches that had remodeled their cavernous sanctuary space into three floors of apartments, a coffee shop run by people in need of job skills, community social service offices and, yes, a number of cozy meeting spaces used for worship, Bible teaching, Sunday school, parenting classes and addiction recovery. The reflection on space was interesting, organized and exciting. There was often a facilities manager on the premise to moderate and coordinate the building use. The spaces have been transformed – not lost, but used in creative ways, open seven days a week to meet needs Monday through Sunday.

On other occasions, worshipping groups gathered in public places, transforming them into holy space. Bible studies around pub tables, meeting people in parks, movie nights at the local community center, and church- run community carnivals on the town square all witnessed to Jesus’ presence among the people, outside of formal church buildings.

These encounters provoked questions about facility use, whether we have been blessed with space of our own, or where we gather if we do not own our own meetinghouse. What does God ask of us? Are we being faithful to the Great Commission to go and make disciples of all nations, and to our neighbor? Are we willing to open up and to be the center of the community, a light on a hill? Or are we being nudged to move out of our church buildings into the public spaces to proclaim the gospel? May we think creatively, remembering the meetinghouse turned into a climbing gym, as we follow Jesus and form missional communities.

Tom’s time in England was partially funded by a Missional Operational Funds Grant to continue to build relationships with Anabaptists in the United Kingdom and to cultivate further learning and implementation of God’s dream in Allentown.