This week, the Christian community, Paris, and even the non-Christ-following world was stunned with the news of Notre Dame burning in flames. News footage showing the spire falling into the center of the building emphasized the shock and sadness of losing such a trademark symbol of Christian faith and world history. This building was, to many, a representation of something much bigger than themselves.
Notre Dame was the most visited building in Europe with reportedly up to 30,000 people per day being on its grounds or touring the cathedral. Its roof structure was called “the forest” because it took a forest of trees to build it, most of which were cut down between 1160-1170 AD. It’s current building frame dated to around 1220. It was an amazing and beautiful church structure.
It was the site of the Coronation of Napoleon. Henry VI was crowned King there. It has been the site of numerous celebrations and memorials of kings and important citizens. The liberation of Paris was celebrated there at the end of World War II with the singing of Magnificat. It has been the center of culture and Christian life for Paris and for France.
Many found joy in the fact that, because of some current restoration plans, artifacts of faith had previously been removed from the building. Many of the remaining artifacts were saved by bystanders as they formed a line and passed items from the burning building into an area of safety.
As I watched the story unfold, I couldn’t help but feel the tension of great sadness for the loss of such a beautiful and historic structure, while at the same time, being amazed at the ironic apathy we present at the metaphorical burning down of the western church.
You see, the church in the west is also burning, and has been for some time. Every statistic points to the loss of relevance that churches and church communities have with the non-Christ-following culture. We have lost our impact for the gospel, our witness for Jesus. Rarely does the general public care what the church has to say on a topic, expecting to hear judgement and critical language from our lips instead. Our love of neighbor is not the cornerstone anymore, being replaced instead by the cornerstone of right behavior and correct national policy. Yes, the church is on fire, but no one is weeping.
As pastors, church planters and missional people, this begs questions of ecclesiology and methodology. Do we put too much emphasis on church structures, over the foundational structure of community and communitas? While a building that is over eight hundred years old can disappear in a day, a faith community of people, the Ecclesia, can carry on the work of mission and incarnation of the gospel in any location. The Notre Dame can be leveled, but the people of the Notre Dame community will hopefully worship somewhere else, carry on their community, and their mission.
And so I ask, what energies do we give to our buildings and structures as “the church?” Is our first need into planting a faith community finding the right school, coffee shop, or space to meet in? We must remember, if missional people, that the structures, stages and programs of our communities are simply a representation of something much bigger. These grandly planned institutions, the place of well-crafted message, honed worship bands, and emotive video are only supposed to be an inspirational moving to the thingJesus calls us to…to be “sent” people. (John 20:21).
Don’t get upset with me, I believe the church should gather and worship. I believe there is great value in the rhythms of our sacraments and practices of worship. However, what I mean to poke or stir is our over-zealousness for buildings over substance, for structure over mission. These buildings, while sometimes beautiful, are simply tools for a larger mission, a larger gospel. The simplicity of the cliché is true in this case…the church is not the building, it’s the people. We gather so that we may scatteras Jesus people, into a world that needs good news.
And so what if our first steps of church planting were to build community instead of finding a place to meet? What if we lived incarnationally into our neighborhoods before writing the first sermon? What if everyone new our name, BEFORE they knew the name of our church? Would we not then place a cornerstone that might last longer than any building we could build?
The facts show, that our good news is waning. No, the news, the gospel, hasn’t changed, but our delivery of it is in question, and now no one is listening, except other Christians. We preach to the choir and we call it ministry. But be aware, the choir loft is on fire, it’s burning down, the sanctuary, the children’s wing, the Sunday school rooms, they are all on fire and disappearing.
Will we weep?
Will we go to our knees to God?
Will we feel loss?
Or will we just continue on our current path, one that allows the church to fade away?
It’s time for us to realize that are losing our God-given identity, our reason for existing. When we weep for buildings, yet don’t shed a tear for our current crisis of the church; when we go to our knees for Notre Dame, yet barely stumble as the western church loses her impact for the gospel, then something is off-base, over-looked, mis-informed.
Yes, cry and feel sadness for Notre Dame, Paris, and the Christian world. I do too. We lost a great building. However, what will we do to not lose the church in America?
Rowland is the author of Life Out Loud: Joining Jesus Outside the Walls of the Church. He is a missional practitioner and trainer and is director of the Forge Colorado Springs hub, as well as serving on the Forge America National Team. He is the pastor of missional culture at Pulpit Rock Church, Colorado Springs and also helps lead Ecclesia Colorado Springs, a missional faith community. Rowland has a degree from Fuller Seminary in missiology and theology. He and his wife, Kitty, own Third Space Coffee, a missional café business model. They have one teenager, three adult children, and four dogs.