How a New Breed of Churches Are Embracing Urban Renewal

The graffiti that once signified lawlessness in Bristol’s Stokes Croft neighbourhood now points to urban growth. (Photograph: Rufus Cox/Getty)
The graffiti that once signified lawlessness in Bristol’s Stokes Croft neighbourhood now points to urban growth. (Photograph: Rufus Cox/Getty)

To a new breed of churches, dilapidated neighbourhoods are the fallen world – and salvation lies not just in prayer but in pop-ups, vintage shops and bakeries

In the 1990s, the Bristol neighbourhood of Stokes Croft was a hub of unchecked creativity. The vast Victorian façades, many of which had been abandoned to the elements, were a ready-made canvas for street artists such as Banksy and Robert Del Naja (also known as 3D), who became household names. Sound systems piled into squats while the police turned a blind eye, fostering global stars such as Tricky and Massive Attack.

Two decades on, and Stokes Croft is increasingly home to artisan coffee shops, burger bars and craft ale pubs that signify urban modernity. The graffiti, once a marker of lawlessness, is now consigned to council-sanctioned tourist sites.

‘A hub of unchecked creativity’ … Stokes Croft. (9Photograph: Rufus Cox/Getty Images)
‘A hub of unchecked creativity’ … Stokes Croft. (9Photograph: Rufus Cox/Getty Images)

In this environment, the 123 Space, located halfway up the road of Stokes Croft, fits right in. It’s a creative venue for hire, hosting everything from art shows to coffee roastings. Its slate-grey exterior sits comfortably beside the multicoloured patchwork of high-street shopfronts. Inside, under the exposed timber and brickwork, is the Elemental Collective, a community grocery. There are no stained-glass windows and no tabernacle. Nothing marks it out as a church.

But every Thursday evening, its proprietors meet here to worship, where they stand in a circle and smile knowingly at one another: more yoga session than sermon. This is the LoveBristol church. Its members pursue idiosyncratic beliefs within a loose structure – a belief in prophecy, speaking in tongues, and the power of the Holy Spirit in instigating modern-day miracles.

They also believe in urban regeneration. The church runs a range of startups and social enterprises in the neighbourhood, including a second-hand furniture shop and a vintage clothes store. These enterprises, which generate funds for charities and community arts projects, channel the ethics of Bristol’s famous street art: an active, communal idealism and an earthy, back-to-nature spirituality. A prominent mural on the wall above LoveBristol HQ reads: “Think Local: Boycott Tesco.”

“Urban renewal is a lovely way to put what often people call gentrification,” says Neko Griffin, manager of LoveBristol enterprise Treasure retro clothes store. “That is completely the vision that I see at work in Stokes Croft. I would say it’s incredibly important because you want to be in a community where property and space is respected, and where businesses are thriving and where there’s opportunities for local people to be able to converge and connect. You don’t want an area to just be completely deprived and people to have no opportunities … that’s what is used to be like in this area.”

The church has even invested in the property market. The Stokes Croft ethos of collective living (in the past, many of the large abandoned buildings around here were home to squatters) survives in a rather more cosmopolitan iteration: LoveBristol has bought two community houses for members, part of a network of religious communes throughout the city.

‘Boycott Tesco’ graffiti above the newly refurbished Elemental bakery, which is run by church communities in Stokes Croft, Bristol. (Photograph: LoveBristol)
‘Boycott Tesco’ graffiti above the newly refurbished Elemental bakery, which is run by church communities in Stokes Croft, Bristol. (Photograph: LoveBristol)

“We don’t know what the person below us is doing, the person above us, the person next door,” says Greg Thompson, founder of LoveBristol, who argues that living collectively can be a solution to an atomised society. Communal living allows for “sharing life” – and the mortgage.

Gentrification has profoundly influenced religion. It’s easy to assume that as cities grow, secularism rises. And indeed, traditional British religion is in the doldrums. According to the Brierley Consultancy, UK church membership declined from 30% of the population in 1930 to just 10.3% in 2013.

But the same report noted that evangelical, charismatic, Pentecostal and other “new churches” are going against the grain. Between 1980 and 2015, their combined attendance figures rose from 296,100 to 464,000. As every other major denomination – Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian – rapidly shrunk, these congregations almost doubled in size.

Such pockets of Christianity are primarily persevering and growing in urban centres. In Bristol, the proliferation of local micro-breweries, vinyl revival record stores and pop-up greengrocers is mirrored in the rise of a new breed of grassroots congregation, attracting younger, trendier demographics with considerable success. A kind of “spiritual gentrification” is gaining currency.

In the context of Christianity, of course, gentrification takes on a new, existential dimension. This became clear in bizarre fashion last year, after a woman in Fort Mill, South Carolina, prophesied that Bristol was about to become “the healing capital of England”. Despite never having heard of Bristol, let alone visited it, she proclaimed that an “outpouring of healing is coming to that region … Seeds planted years ago have come to full maturity… Winds of change are blowing and a changing of the guard is coming.”

The prophecy was persuasive enough to convince a group of evangelicals in Bristol that they were the epicentre of a grand, godly plan. To capitalise on the historic moment, they swiftly organised an international healing conference.

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SOURCE: The Guardian
Joel Duddell

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