On a recent road trip from Sydney to Melbourne we pulled off the motorway to have a break on what is a very long drive. The place we stopped at was a small, quite undistinguished village with a number of houses, a community centre and a café. There was however one more significant building. This was a church building, very small but in architectural terms very attractive; it had clearly been lovingly maintained. I had noticed it several times over the years of making the same journey. The building had a plaque on an outside wall which told that it was opened in 1910 and that it was built ‘To the Glory of God’.
Usually, I had broken my journey there at night and to stretch my legs wandered around the building, but on those previous occasions there had never been any sign of activity.
This time however, the building was open, and I notice people going in and out. I also noticed that construction signs were placed around the building prohibiting unauthorised entry. An overall-clad woman, who clearly was in someway involved in whatever was going on, noticed me standing there and invited me inside. When I entered, I could see that anything that in any way represented the purpose for which the building had originally been erected, that is ‘To the Glory of God’, had been completely stripped out. It was a just a hollow shell with the interior of the stone walls covered with new plaster.
The woman told me that the work that was going on was to turn the place into an ‘Air B&B’ for tourists and that it had not been in use for ‘The Glory of God’ for twenty years or so. It is now clear that ‘’God has left the building’.
When I see, not uncommonly, things like that God-abandoned building (it should be noted that these are not limited to rural areas only) I am always reminded of what I think is one of the scariest passages in the Bible. That is in Ezekiel (Chaps. 10 and 11:22-25), where we see God leaving the Temple in Jerusalem and the City: leaving His ‘chosen’ people because of their centuries of cultural contamination by and syncretism with the ‘gods’ of the surrounding nations: as well as a ‘she’ll-be-right, God won’t abandon us, we’re His chosen people after all, attitude’. But, apart from the ‘Remnant’ He kept for Himself in Babylon, God did just that!
It occurred to me that a great missional irony is to be found in the soon-to-be ‘Air B&B’ building. The ‘church’ building I visited stands as a testimony to missional failure; God had left the building and it died. Its name was the Church of St Columba. The irony comes from the fact that it is named after one of the greatest and most successful 5thand 6th century Celtic missionaries in the northern British Isles. His name was Columba!
I think it not unreasonable to see the building named after the great missionary Columba standing as a metaphor for the Australian Church generally, one that, like the Israelites of Ezekiel’s time, has now largely forgotten its primary purpose, indeed in Michael Griffith’s words is a ‘Cinderella with Amnesia’; a building standing as a testimony to failed local mission.
Could it be that the experience of the ‘Chosen people’ of Ezekiel’s time and the exile of only a Remnant to captivity in Babylon, is a warning to us? A warning that God is not patient for ever when His people forget for whom and for what they, and their resources, exist, and substitute a comfortable, legalistic, ritualistic, service-attending, religiosity for God’s missional purpose, and when Local Mission sits at Item 10b on the Church Council meeting’s agenda.
Many will argue against the above hypothesis, saying, correctly, that Christians are part of the New not the Old Covenant and that we are saved by Grace not by what we do, and anyway did not Jesus say that God will never let us go? (John 10:27,28). Yes, but I am sure there were many Godly, faithful people in Jerusalem in the 6th century BC whose faith would have saved them as individuals, yet that did not stop God abandoning the Temple (Church) and the City, and allowing the demolition of the Nation.
Another argument against my hypothesis is that Jesus promised that the ‘Gates of Hell’ (Satanic Powers) would not prevail against the Church (Matthew 16:18). Yes, he did, but He was referring to the Church Universal, not any particular part of it. He was not saying that any particular denomination (whether Baptist, Anglican, Presbyterian etc), or the Church in any geographical area (e.g. Australia), would not disappear.
As we watch the decades long, ongoing decline of the institutional Church as well as the parallel 50 year long, census-described decline in Christian affiliation could it be time to reflect on the Vision God gave to Ezekiel? Could it just be that God is leaving the building?
If that is true, the probability is that we have passed the point of no return and there is nothing the Institutional Church can do to will arrest the decline. The next five years will probably show us. However, while that may be the case, a more positive probability is that, as He has always done, God is choosing a ‘Remnant’, one expressed in new forms of ‘Church’ that He is assembling to carry His Mission forward? I suspect that those who are part of that are not to be found in the institutional church.
Are we being called to focus, not on the past, but on the future, to pray to be able to discern where the Wind of the Holy Spirit is now blowing, where the green shoots of His new ways are already sprouting?
Once more ‘To the Glory of God’
And will we be part of it?