The Central Baptist Church – Southampton
“If the Physical Community is not different because we are here, we are doing something wrong.”
The first (and immediate) response we received to our call for Churches to highlight what they are doing that is good in the Community came from the Central Baptist Church in Southampton. Having been in and around the City for more than 40 years, I have been well aware of the place for a long time, but particularly for the last 10 years or so. During the tenure of the current pastor, David Masters, I have been there on a number of occasions for worthwhile events, and know the building to be well used and hospitable, if somewhat old-fashioned and “challenged”.
But I also remember well, before David came, being aware of conversations suggesting that the place would not be open too much longer. It is really interesting – and enormously encouraging – to see what it is like now, and to talk about it. It was a very difficult place to come to all those years ago for a newly qualified pastor for reasons over and above the normal, and it was subsequently recognised by the authorities that it was not a situation to put a newly qualified pastor in to. David came close to leaving on a number of occasions, but the Regional Ministry team were very supportive when the difficulties were first revealed.
But what of the here and now? David stressed that “we try to work very hard on partnership as we are a small, City Centre church, where most of the congregation live out of the area”. When David arrived the building was chronically underused. He believes that this grade two listed building has got to be used as a Community resource to justify the expense of keeping it open and the added pressures of developing it.
Lots of people want the church as a Sunday by Sunday “Sacred Space”, and not just the sanctuary, but the whole premises. For David, the Sacred Space is the Human heart, where the Holy Spirit grows. And attitudes have changed to the extent that now even the Sanctuary itself has been used for band rehearsals and for fashion Shows among other things. The space was also at the time of my visit being adapted because one of the main partners – Southampton Solent University – would like the area to be carpeted.
David considers that, since Churches have their own expectations about their own involvements in the wider world, they simply aren’t able to do all the hard work themselves, so it needs to be in partnership. And those partners need to be decent partners. In the early days of David’s Ministry, there were a number of “partners” who did not contribute to the life of the Church at all, either in terms of finance through paying for the use of rooms, or through doing something that contributes towards the church and the community. You need decent partners, which can contribute to either the finance or the mission of the Church, or both.
And very few of Central Baptist existing partners are “people coming to us”, they have been sought out and relationships cultivated. But anybody who uses the building (even if they are not paying) is a partner because they are making sure that the building is “used” and not a museum.
In his original message to us, David detailed just some of what they are now doing:
“Our very large building is used by two other churches on a Sunday and we try to make the building available to as many community groups as possible. In the last 12-18 months we have become a home for at least 4 Mental health projects (one of which is supported by the NHS), none of which pay full price for our rooms, but each make a contribution as they can.
“We encourage the congregation to give both money and cans of food on a Sunday, and as a result we now have two pick-ups a year from our local food bank (Basics Bank), who always say that they are amazed how much they collect from us.
“We host a Coffee shop every Thursday, between 11AM and 1PM, in an effort to engage with our community, which is 95% students, but we get a lot of people from the local retirement home, carers with their clients and those with physical disability needs from a project around the corner that had to close its doors.
“We provide a free cooked breakfast to homeless (both hidden & rough sleepers) once a month, but by working with three other churches in the city that meal can be offered almost 50 weeks of the year.
We partner with Southampton Solent University, as I am released by the congregation to speak at the CU and to work with the chaplaincy department. We also work with Student Union & Southampton City Council in the Eco Ernie project, which is a major clean up/recycle project when the students move out at this time of the year (end July) and all their salvageable materials are forwarded to charities (SCRATCH, OXFAM, H & IOW Air Ambulance, BHF, the local Cat Shelter & local charity shop).
Through all this, the building has changed, not in a massive rebuild sort of way, but through sensible and gradual steps. Redecorating, tidying up, sensible investments in new furniture. Sometimes this has been in response to a crisis. The Kitchen was rebuilt, inspired or necessitated by defective electrics and very real safety hazards. But now a really good kitchen has come out of it, while keeping expenditure as low as possible. And it is future-proofed – it is not just built to meet current needs, it is built to cater for any potential future use that can be thought of. It has, for example, been used for cookery projects by some of the Mental Health “Partner Organisations” which use the premises.
Some final thoughts. During our conversation, David said “If someone knocks on the door, I will try to help”. In an IBEX AGM recently, the moderator of the URC Wessex Synod, Clare Downing, used the expression “Gracious Hospitality”. It was an expression which seemed to make everybody sit up and take notice. It is about not just being a landlord, it is about going the extra mile – or maybe even two. That seems to be going on in bucket loads at Central Baptist Church.
Personally, I was really struck by the “Eco Ernie” project – working with partners to tackle a social and environmental need, recycling stuff in to the bargain and making money to support local schemes and charities – Genius.
And finally, a highlight for David was when early on one of the elderly neighbour of the Church commented that “It’s good to see the Church so busy“, which is an answer to David’s comment that “If the Physical Community is not different because we are here, we are doing something wrong.”
Contact David Wrighton, Team Leader, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org