When I arrived at St James Clerkenwell in 1997 there was a sign on the steps saying ‘Do not sit or eat here by order of the churchwardens.’ One of the first things I did in my first week was to put a brightly coloured poster over the sign with the one word on it, ‘welcome’. Churches can inadvertently send out a very closed message to people that is completely opposite to the news of grace that we long to share. It reminds me of the Pharisees who complained to Jesus that he ‘welcomed sinners and ate with tax collectors’ to which Jesus replied ‘why wouldn’t I, considering that’s the heartbeat of God?’ One of the conundrums of St James is that it has a very imposing outside but a very welcoming inside – the church is a classic Georgian preaching box and the whole building is designed so that as many as possible can hear the good news of Jesus. But unlike the baseball movie ‘Field of Dreams’, people will not come if everything we do remains hidden behind three foot thick walls. So right from the start we’ve been going to the local residential, university and business communities surrounding the church and saying ‘you’re welcome to your church – come and visit, come and have a coffee, come and hear beautiful music concerts, come and play with your children, come and cheer on England at our big screen sports events and come and explore your questions of faith at our School of Faith Conversations and Core Classes.’ We’ve always wanted to be known as a public house where everyone is welcome but also a public house of God where the unique message of Jesus is being explained in a way that is clear to understand and easy to relate to daily life. As a church in the middle of London we may not be a baseball field of dreams but we are a house of God in Clerkenwell Green.
Over the last few years Clerkenwell has become the centre for creative industries and many of the old gin distilleries, print works and other workshops have been converted into workspaces for media, design, architecture and start up businesses. But how does a Sunday centric church become an every day of the week church? The answer dawned on me when I was in the New York Public Library writing a book on strategy for churches. I’d chosen the library because it was a beautiful space and it was away from the normal hubbub of life (plus I was in New York for a conference). The wonderful thing about the New York Public Library is that it communicates ‘welcome’ from the entrance onwards rather than the message ‘only come if you have a university accredited research reason.’ Yes there’s a bag check, but then anyone is free to go in and explore fully – all the reading rooms are accessible and all have plenty of desks with power and free wifi. Yes, the building is beautiful and inspiring but so is the welcome. My church of dreams became a space in the heart of London’s creative industries that would welcome and inspire people both architecturally, socially and spiritually. That’s why the collaboration with Tom Dixon has been such a gift. He has literally gifted us some beautiful and inspiring lights, tables and chairs along with upgraded wifi but he has also helped us shape a workspace for creatives in Clerkenwell that speaks their design language so they feel at home. For us that non verbal communication of welcome and value is core to our thinking as we want to be known as a church that understands the design world we’re in and therefore has the opportunity to celebrate and challenge from within rather than criticise from without.
That dream of being at the heart of Clerkenwell’s creative culture was realised in a magnificent way during Clerkenwell Design Week. We had 1000 visitors per day to view the Tom Dixon installation and a packed church to hear a talk by Tom Dixon on design which I followed with an explanation of how God is the ultimate creative designer whose design principles of legacy, generosity and beauty are shown in all he does and is. It would have been tempting to do a quick fix and open up workspace by putting out some old folding tables and stacking plastic chairs. But instead we have been able to integrate beautiful workspaces into the main church building that inspire people, communicate our welcome and provide on-going opportunities for all to explore with us the beauty of God’s grace, truth and love.
November 30, 2016
July 18, 2017