This house remains a ruin

James Tissot Collection,

Recently, we’ve been studying Haggai who reveals God’s frustration that his people in, Post-Exile, Jerusalem have been building homes for themselves rather than rebuilding the Temple. The Jerusalem Temple was, amongst other things, a symbol of the presence of God among his people. It was a central representation of and conduit for the relationship between God and his people. I took the core message to connect strongly with Jesus’ command to prioritise God’s Kingdom.

In the New Testament the Temple building appears to be replaced by people. For Christians, Jesus replaces the Temple, the Christian community (Jesus body) replaces the Temple, and individual Christians also replace the Temple as dwelling places for God’s Spirit. Today the message of Haggai insists that our focus should be on Jesus and the growing people of God.

This makes me wonder about our churches as both physical and institutional structures? Do we see our buildings and governance structures as the symbol and context for God’s presence among us? Is it possible that we have mistake these as the Temple?

Many churches, at heart, present as members clubs rather than missionary movements. Often staff and volunteer activities are centred on keeping the organisation running rather than increasing the spiritual depth and impact of the people of God? Is it possible that God remains frustrated that we are still building our own ‘homes’ because our activities are about the day to day running and preservation of the organisation or the assets?

What if the Spirit is saying stop! Stop building your own homes. Stop trying to save your structures and buildings. Stop trying to save the Kirk. Because while we agonise over how to make structural reforms, another generation of Scotland’s people are drifting further from any Christian community. What if, by continuing to focus on the structures and infrastructure we are doing more harm than good? What if the Kingdom of God would most benefit from our demise as a denomination?

I actually wonder if that is the starting place for all planning.

Should every Church of Scotland start by asking in what way are we benefitting the growth of God’s Kingdom? Or to phrase if differently, what difference would it make to the Kingdom if we were not here? And what about our earlier question, how is God’s Temple being priorised?

How are God’s people growing in number, faith and impact? Is anyone becoming a Christian through our church life? Is God adding to our number. How are people transformed by our worship services and care for our community? How is Jesus’ mission furthered by our church building and administrative structures? What different does it make that we are in our parish?

It might be well argued that churches should be primarily about the worship of God and the teaching and care of the congregation. And this need not be a self-centred approach. Such congregations might be heavily missional through the personal activities of the individual congregation members. But in that context it’s hard to justify all the trappings of a parish church. How do we justify the expense of a building which is used infrequently? How do we justify the expense of a Parish Minister and local church organisational structures, if our church is essentially a small gathering for bible study, prayer and worship. Why not become a self-sustaining house church perhaps renting a space for Sunday gatherings?

This is a circuitous way of saying, the Temple and therefore the Kingdom of God can be built without the current parish church exo-skeleton. Indeed, sometimes maintaining the parish church with its rotas, costs, committees and admin may actually detract from the building of the Temple.

Should we close all our buildings and lose our employees and office holders? No, but we must justify these through their participation in the growth and extension of the Kingdom. Instead of equating our buildings and administrative structures with the Temple, we need to assess them as instruments of mission and Kingdom growth. How do our church buildings, governance and administrative structures support the activity of the Spirit, adding to our number and transforming us into the likeness of Jesus? If they don’t, do we really need them?

Lastly, I believe that the Kingdom of God is growing among us, albeit often unseen and unheard. But perhaps we should ask does God want the Kirk to decline? Does God seek our slow demise because he has something else in mind? What does keeping in step with the Spirit mean for the Kirk today? But that’s a question for another day.

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