The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. — Paul, Acts 17:24
It’s almost impossible to think of congregations these days without associating them with the buildings in which they meet. Architecturally these special structures are highly visible, easily recognizable, and say a lot about the faith and finances of the people who worship in them. And for the majority of the week, much of their heated and air-conditioned spaces are unused.
But where did the idea of Christ’s followers needing to own, or meet in, special kinds of real estate come from? There is no hint of Jesus ever giving his disciples instructions about forming building committees, raising funds for temple construction or electing trustees to look after church property.
On the contrary, Jesus and his apostles made it clear that the current temple of their day wasn’t relevant to the Kingdom of God movement, and it was that insistence, as much as any one thing, that got both Jesus and his follower, Stephen, killed.
“The temple will be destroyed,” Jesus declared, and in in the future: “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name there I will be in their midst.” And he told a Samaritan woman, “The day will come when God will be worshiped neither in Jerusalem nor on this mountain (the one sacred to Samaritans)” (John 4).
In his best selling book, What Jesus Meant, Catholic author Garry Wills writes, “Jesus did not come to replace the Temple with other buildings, whether huts or cathedrals, but to instill a religion of the heart, with only himself as the place where we encounter the Father.”
For the past 26 years, Alma Jean and I have been members of a small house church congregation that meets weekly in member homes, much as first century believers did. We welcome newcomers joining us for our informal two hours of worship and Bible study, followed by a fellowship meal, but our main focus is on equipping each other for our various ministries between Sundays rather than on carrying out some well-scripted liturgy when we’re together. We share responsibility for leading the sharing and prayer time and the Bible studies, and our services are more like spiritual “carry-in meals” rather than sit-down banquets prepared by professional chefs.
We don’t claim that ours is the only right way to experience church, but we do believe that Jesus never meant for his followers to be highly dependent on burdensome real estate or a trained and professional clergy to continue Jesus’ mission on Earth.
And giving more of that money to the poor instead might be the kind of action even unbelievers could understand.
Harvey Yoder is an ordained pastor and member of Family of Hope, a small Virginia Mennonite Conference house church congregation. He blogs at Harvspot, where this first appeared, as part of a series of prayers for each day leading up to Epiphany.