Church For the Night

The Idea
A few months ago, some of the club chaplain team were talking about the big traditional churches dotted around town, and about how there is often a special ‘something’ about these places. Of course we all know that God is everywhere and that the church is the people not the building – but nonetheless there is often something tangibly distinct about these old churches which means that just entering these places, just being there, can be a spiritual experience itself.

Then we started thinking about St. Peter’s Church right slap bang in the middle of Bournemouth, with a club on either side of it and a club right opposite it. Then we started thinking about what might happen if we opened it up overnight one weekend when all the clubs were at their busiest. Then we started thinking that probably nothing would happen, that no-one would want to come in – but that we would give it a shot anyway.

So, after persuading the vicar to let us have the place the weekend before Christmas, we spent most of December working out how to turn St. Peter’s Church from the sombre, empty, imposing building that it usually seems to be at night, into a magical wonderland of thought and love and contemplation and creativity. In the end, we had music and lights and visuals and banks of TVs and projectors and sculpture and poetry and candles and prayers and (perhaps most importantly) free mince pies and mulled wine. And then we opened the doors.

The Night
Even before we’d actually opened up properly, people started coming in to have a look around, to see what was going on. While we were still setting up a group of teenage girls was sitting on the steps at the front – and one of them, crying, asked, “Are you a Christian? Is the church open? Can I come in? Can you pray with me?” and before we had a chance to answer, ran through the doors. We found a member of the team to pray with her, and carried on setting up.

Then from the moment we opened the doors properly at 11pm, we had a constant stream of people coming in. We barely had time to take stock and realise just how amazing it was that so many people wanted to come in, because we were too busy just meeting and greeting and talking about Jesus and praying with people. Suddenly it was 3am and we were supposed to finish, but there were still people coming in, still people wanting to know why this church was open in the middle of the night, still people wanting to talk about God and pray and spend time in contemplation. We’re talking about hundreds of people; we’re talking about people walking past and not even hesitating about coming in; we’re talking about students, clubbers, police officers, bouncers, bar-staff foreign students, homeless people, anyone and everyone… it was mindblowing.

There are so many stories to tell that there isn’t enough room for them all here, but beyond all the people praying, and asking for prayer, and wanting to engage in conversation about God, there were also invitations to dinner from people interested in more, atheists who said they could feel the presence of God, a couple of unchurched lads who wanted to meet up so I could buy them Bibles, and we even saw bouncers from nearby clubs telling people leaving their clubs to come up and experience churchforthenight. (A plentiful supply of mince-pies for the bouncers might have been a contributing factor to this display of goodwill.) Near the end of the night, one lad was dragged away from a conversation with me by friends who wanted to leave and carry on drinking – but about fifteen minutes later he reappeared alone, telling us that he’d slipped away from his friends when they weren’t looking. We carried on the conversation where we’d left off and talked for absolutely ages, and he even stayed to help us pack up when we eventually closed the doors at 4am. Then while we were still cleaning up at 5am, another lad knocked on the door wanting to be allowed in to pray, so we opened up, sat with him for a while, then left him to pray – it seemed as if the evening just didn’t want to stop.

However, I think the most exciting thing was just how many people responded to the offer of a place to lift up their prayers, and the opportunity to have us pray with them. The prayers that people wrote and pegged up on the prayer wall were at times both gobsmacking and heartwrenching.

The Outcome
For me, one of the main outcomes of the evening is that I now have to fundamentally rethink my understanding of people in general and their attitudes towards church in particular – this is supposed to be a generation that doesn’t care about church at all, yet here they were turning up in their droves; to pray, to think about God, and to talk to a whole bunch of Christians about the meaning of life! It seemed that almost everyone who came in wanted to know when we’d be doing it again, they were just so amazed/touched by it all, and people kept on telling us that the church should be open like this every night. I don’t think any of us expected that so many people would come in, let alone that we would spend all night talking about Jesus – at others’ instigation!

Although this was originally conceived as a one-off, we immediately realised we would have to do it again, and have now had quite a few outings. Each time we’ve welcomed a multitude of people who find space to stop, rest, take stock, and consider God and themselves and how the two may be able to fit together; each time we’ve had a night filled with prayers and tears and laughter and hope; and each time we’ve been given the opportunity to demonstrate our love for God, and God’s love for humanity, through the outworking of the creative gifts he has given us. We haven’t got a date for the next one yet, but it will probably be sometime in the next couple of months – your prayers would be enormously appreciated.

A fuller version of this story can be found in Jon’s new book Night Vision, an exciting collection of stories about engaging with the mission of God, exploring new forms of church, and finding a meaningful expression of faith within club culture and the nightlife. Released in February 2009, Night Vision is published by Canterbury Press.