In a new article just posted are some observations on Jesus words concerning the Temple, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Mark 13:2) . Only a very short time before uttering these solemn words Jesus had been in the Temple watching people put money in the treasury. He had seen rich people put in large sums out of their wealth, and he had drawn the attention of His disciples to a poor widow who had, despite her poverty, given all she had. (Mark 12:41-44)
The traditional understanding of the story of the poor widow has been that Jesus was commending her for the tremendous sacrifice in giving all she had, and church leaders have frequently used the story to urge their people to more and more costly giving to build maintain or extend church buildings. But if we look at the context we are forced to another very different conclusion. Just before making His comments on the contributors to the Temple funds Jesus had said this, “Beware of the scribes, who like to go about in long robes, and to have salutations in the market places and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at feasts, who devour widows' houses and for a pretence make long prayers.” And just after speaking of the widow He prophesied the utter destruction of the magnificent temple the disciples had so much admired. The truth is that the widow and the rich alike had contributed to maintain a building and a religious system that was about to come to an end.
Eighteen months ago I visited my home town in the Borders of Scotland with my daughter, Christine. Walking round the town we noted two church buildings in a run-down condition. One was the Baptist church of which I and my parents had been members, and the other a magnificent Presbyterian church with a stately tower and a capacious galleried interior now closed down. The paint was peeling from its impressive doors and wind-blown dead leaves were piled up against them. A commercial enterprise had taken over the church hall as a store. It was a depressing sight. An hour or so later in the morning we looked for a place to have lunch and spotted an unpretentious little café called “Under the Sun”. When we went in, we found that it was a Christian enterprise set up by a vibrant group of mainly young believers, who were using it to reach out to others. The staff were warmly welcoming. The wall bore colourful posters, each with a message, and there were Bibles and books for sale. We discovered that this group met together in the basement of the building for fellowship each week. What a joy it was to discover this evidence of real life not in an ecclesiastical building erected at great expense, but in humble premises which were financially self supporting. This was the Church alive and well!
Just this week we had a visitor from the north of England from the area where, some forty years ago, I was in practice for three years. This area had been a stronghold of Methodism from the days of John Wesley and many chapels dotted the landscape. When I enquired about church life this lady told me how they were now struggling financially just to maintain one or two of these buildings. Church buildings erected through sacrificial giving in the past are now millstones round the neck of today's believers. The same story could be repeated all over Britian.
The church in its first three centuries grew and flourished without erecting any religious buildings. They came together in homes or hired halls. Their giving could be directed towards needy brothers and sisters in other parts of the world or in supporting those who were seeking to spread the good news. Isn't it time we had a rethink? Thirty years ago in his book, “The Problem of Wineskins” Howard Snyder suggested what he called an “impossible cataclysm”, which would dismantle institutionalism, sell all church buildings and give the money away, abolish professional ministry and return to the pattern of the early church. Why won't we just do it?