A few years ago, an exhibition toured Scotland with photographs of churches derelict or converted into night-clubs and carpet showrooms, entitled simply 'Jesus Has Left The Building'. It would be hard to argue with the title; if a place where God was once worshipped is now used for other purposes, it's pretty clear that it's no longer a place where Jesus meets with his people.
However my concern is that there are hundreds more churches which haven't been converted to commercial use - but which could equally well have been included in the exhibition. Churches where (usually dwindling) congregations meet together on Sunday mornings. Where hymns are sung and the Bible is read – but the message that sinful human beings can only become right with a holy God through Jesus has long since ceased to ring out.
The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel saw in a vision the glory of the Lord literally leave the temple. We're not going to see Jesus physically leave a church today - so how do we know if he has departed?
Well above all, Jesus is present in a church if his word is proclaimed. Jesus said that his sheep follow him, because they know his voice. Imagine a little girl waking up in the night. It's dark, and she's scared. Then she hears the voice of her father: 'It's alright sweetheart. Everything's ok. You can go back to sleep'. The voice of her father is the reassurance of his presence. One of the Reformers put it this way: 'Have we God's word preached purely? Then Jesus Christ is in the midst of us'.
Just because the Bible is read, doesn't mean the Bible's message is being proclaimed. It's easy to teach moral lessons from the Bible. But if living a moral life was enough to get us to Heaven, Jesus' death would have been pointless.
So if Jesus has left a building, his people must leave too. There's too much at stake to keep going to a church just because you've been there all your life. Jesus said that his people would 'flee' from the voice of strangers. A sentimental connection with a building or denomination shouldn't be enough to hold us.
Seeing churches turned into garages and boxing gyms is sad. But the real tragedy is the churches that are still open - but whose members don't realise that Jesus is no longer there.
Published in Stranraer & Wigtownshire Free Press, 23rd March 2017