I was showing a national organisation around our two new churches last week. I had the usual warm comments about how successful they were, and a general recognition of how hard and difficult the whole process must have been. And yes, of course, there were occasions when the redevelopment process was fraught and frustrating, and I know just how much time and energy church members put in to make the new buildings what they are today. But in one sense, physically building a new church is the easy part. You arrange the finance, you draw the plans, you get the church built. You know who is doing the building, and you know the end result you are going to get. It might take a few years, and a few sleepless nights, but eventually you have a lovely new church that is there for all to see.
Increasingly however I realise that the real challenge in building a church is putting the community of believers together. There is no known project completion date. You are not working with measurable, physical materials. You do not have a blueprint that contains every last detail. You are simply dealing with God and with the people that He sends to your local church community. It is a continually open-ended process where you can never be sure of the outcome, even though you know you trust Jesus’ promise to build His church.
And as I look back on my nearly 8 years in the parish, I begin to see that when I first arrived I approached this whole business of church-building from the completely the wrong angle. I had learnt all (well, most of) the big theories of church growth at theological college. I had grand plans of implementing them at the local level. But really – and this is something that I think is reinforced by the gospels – church-building starts with the small little details. Getting the welcome right at the church door. Making sure people know one another’s name on a Sunday morning. Encouraging folk to meet with one another outside Sundays. Learning to practise hospitality. Not to say that the bigger picture is unimportant, but not to try and run before you can walk.