‘It is not easy being invisible when you are this big’

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The history of Strand Presbyterian began in 1881 when cottage meetings were held in Cromie’s Row in Lisavon Street.

In 1889 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland sanctioned the organisation of a congregation in Sydenham and so services were conducted in Hill’s Hall in Park Avenue.

However, it wasn’t until 1st November 1903 that Strand Sydenham was erected as a congregation by the Belfast Presbytery. On March 17, 1923 the foundation stone of the previous church was laid and it was exactly one year later that it was opened.

During our centenary year in 2003 we celebrated 100 years of God’s goodness and blessing. As we were considering our past, we began to ask what God would have for us for the future.

During our considerations we had a good look at our church building, asking ourselves if it was still the blessing it had been for us in the past. We came to a number of conclusions.

We discovered there were a number of major repairs which had to be done to allow us to continue to use the building as we had in the past. This led us to ask the question: is our building an advantage or disadvantage to the work of establishing and extending God’s kingdom here in Sydenham and beyond?

As we worked through these issues, we felt it was right for us to build a new building to develop a new approach to building relationships with our friends and neighbours in Sydenham.

During the next few years we determined to build a church which would reflect what we believe God is asking us to do. We felt the architecture should reflect who we are rather than what we traditionally felt a church should look like.

The building should not be the focus of our Christianity; it is only a tool, albeit a very large tool, to help us to tell others of Jesus and help each of us to become more like him in our everyday lives.

When we thought of the building we felt we wanted somewhere we could worship God, we could encourage fellowship with everyone in the church, we could invite others to join us and finally we could encourage our friends and neighbours to use and enjoy it for the things they also enjoy doing.

With that in mind, we felt each of the halls and rooms need to multifunctional. This was a lot more difficult than it first sounded, especially for the space we use for worship. The temptation was to replace what we had with a space which looked just like it did.

Questions we were asked frequently included - why change something which was just right for us for a hundred years and, if it was okay for our forefathers why change it now? We can fully understand these questions and indeed we asked them ourselves many times.

There were two main reasons why we felt we had to change our buildings so we could be more able to reach out to others. The first reason was that although they were beautiful they were old and needed a huge amount of repairs. Secondly, we had become invisible to our local community.

There was a time the church was seen as the centre of the community. Church attendance was high, church activities were booming. Most people came to the church at special times of their lives, at births, at marriage and to attend funerals.

Also if they needed help or advice church was usually the first place they turned to. Many saw God as not only important in their lives but essential. Those days are long gone.

Sadly, most within our community no longer see the church as relevant or important. So, although our buildings were probably larger than most if not all the other buildings in the area, we were virtually invisible as far as our impact and influence in Sydenham was concerned.

For these very important reasons we felt God was leading us to knock down our beloved building and build a multifunctional building which would help us to be better at being the light and salt God calls us to be.

The new Church premises were officially opened on 20th October 2013. Our aim is that our building becomes a safe shared space for all who live in Sydenham.

With that in mind, we desire to offer the building to be used for lots of different activities. In this way we can build up relationships with those who live around us.

In Strand, we try to make our church services informal and relaxed.

We desire that people coming along do not feel intimidated but rather have a sense of belonging and a strong sense that God is present. One of the success stories is our foyer area which allows us to serve tea and coffee after each service. We also use it as a café where we serve free refreshments for two hours on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays although we have taken a break until September.

A couple of months ago, I was in a meeting with local representatives when one of the local business men commented, “Your church looks nothing like a church, it is more like a community centre!” Although he perhaps meant it as a criticism I thanked the man for the compliment.

We would love to be seen as a centre for the community, for us that is where Christ would be and so as a church that is where we want to be too. For more information on Strand Presbyterian Church, visit their website www.strandpresbyterianchurch.org.uk