As I watched the video of the Notre Dame burning down, it was as if I was looking at a picture of the Church in general. What if the Notre Dame, mirrors the worldwide Church?
The unthinkable became a reality.
For 850 years the contours of the Notre Dame shaped the horizon of Paris. For many of the residents of the surrounding area, it is unthinkable to wake up to a skyline without a spire. I mean, the Notre Dame survived the first and the second World War. Surely it has stood the test of time? Nothing can destroy it! Yet, the unthinkable has happened. The bastion where time stood still, suddenly is no more…
In countless other communities across the globe, there once too was a bell tower that defined the inner life of society. For many it was unthinkable that church life would fall into obscurity and dissappear altogether, but alas, this is what happened and is continuing to happen.
This past year alone, numerous books and articles have been published about the worldwide decline in church. A shift in attendance, involvement and membership can be noticed across gender, race and age groups as well as denominational and non-denominational, start-up and mainline churches from around the globe. More and more faith communities are struggling to keep the lights on. For many who call God “Father”, it is unthinkable that what we call “Mother”, is dying. Yet, this is the reality we wake up to.
We watched in horror how the Notre Dame was engulfed in flames and succumbed to the fire. Many would say we are also witnesses of the crumbling of the Church as a whole, in this day and age.
A tremendous sense of loss
As I watched the videos of the Notre Dame going up in flames, I was overcome with a sense of tremendous loss. The charred faced Notre Dame, is the epitome of devastation. The Notre Dame was a beacon of culture, architecture and history. The gravity of mankind’s loss, has not yet fully sunk in.
But the “sense of loss” is found on another level as well: For a lot of church going people, the Notre Dame is also the epitome of what a church ought to be: It is a “sanctuary” in the true sense of the word – and an impressive one at that! The magnificent walls, the stained glass windows, the enormous arches, the 300 foot spire – these truly are awe inspiring. They are also relics from the middle ages. It represents a time when the Church had money, status and power. Who would not want to be a member of a church that influenced monarchs for centuries?
Obviously things have changed over the years. The days when the Church had money, status and power, are long gone. But seeing that era so vividly going up in flames, was painful.
It seldom happens that a church vanishes overnight. More often than not, churches tend to slip into irrelevance, subtly. Often without the church even noticing it, societal shifts come into play. And then one day – as if it happened overnight – the local church realizes that she has been gently pushed aside by the community. Ignored. She fell into the dark abyss of irrelevance.
For a lot of us as believers – especially for those of us who remember the days of influence and significance – it is painful to be confronted with the fact that the church is suddenly powerless, poor and despised. The sense of loss is real and traumatic – very much like what you experience when watching the Notre Dame burning down.
While benefactors raised over 900 million euro’s in just over 2 days to rebuild the Notre Dame, the same will unfortunately not be said for the countless other congregations who are under increasing financial pressure. This is perhaps the sharpest point of difference between the Notre Dame and every other local church. The world will most probably not lift a finger or give a dime to save it (and let’s be honest, they are not obliged to).
There’s a feeling of helplessness to it all. The downward spiral almost feels like it is a fire raging out of control. Or as if you are trying to swim against a tide that is too strong for you. The enormous power with witch societies are swept away into secularization, is aptly described as a wildfire or a tidal wave!
Maintenance causes a downfall
The first sign of smoke at Notre Dame was seen at the section where scaffolding was erected to renovate the building. At the time of writing this post, the cause of the fire is still unconfirmed. There is however widespread speculation that it was either caused by sparks of the maintenance equipment, or human error.
There is a tragic irony in that, what caused Notre Dame’s downfall was most probably due to people trying to renovate it! A maintenance project of 150 million euro’s were ongoing on Monday, when the building caught fire.
Let me be clear: There is literally nothing wrong with maintaining the building. It is what good stewards ought to do. On a metaphorical level though, maintenance-mode is currently the exact mindset of so many churches worldwide.
We have enormous infrastructures to maintain. The overheads of the institutional church have made us top-heavy. What was once considered assets, have now become liabilities. What’s wrong with the Church, is that the baggage of our past has bogged us down. All the inward-focus has resulted in a toxic preoccupation with our own survival and self-existence. It’s not very Christlike, to tell you the truth. We were supposed to be missional-minded. We have fallen into maintenance-mode.
We’ve overcomplicated Church
But at the same time I also felt disconnected. The church in front of me was so very different from my own. The Notre Dame has stone carved gargoyles that serves as drain spoutes. The church I am in, has a very plain building.
The medievel wyverns, strixes and chimeras that decorate the towers of the Notre Dame, let it seem as if we are worlds apart. The church I am in, is undecorated. It is simple. Or is it?
The church I am in, also consists of frills and frocks. We have structure. Hierarchy. Congregations became denominations and affiliations. Synods became institutions. I’m honestly not convinced that Jesus had envisioned all this for his Church to be. What once was a movement, became a bureaucracy. I don’t pretend to know what we ought to do, but I do know we’ve overcomplicated Church.
The ashes of Notre Dame were not even cold yet, when people started saying “We will rebuild Notre Dame”. Shortly after the spire fell, even the French President stood outside the still burning structure and said: “We will rebuild the Notre Dame, because that is what the French expect”.
Generations to come will be poorer without a Notre Dame. So, I was honestly relieved to hear of the plans to rebuild the majestic jewel.
But I was also struck by how familiar the words of the president sounded. In all of the conversations about church decline, you will always hear someone recalling the glory of the past. Usually, it also coincides with reclaiming the solutions of the past, for the problems of today.
It is as if nobody is asking whether “rebuilding” the Church to its former “glory”, is really the right thing to do? Do we really want to restore (everything) of the Church of yesteryear? I, for one, do not think everything of the glorious past was so glorious after all. In South Africa we’ve learned the hard way for instance, that it is best not to mix Church and political power. With the unprecedented rise of the prosperity gospel, the same must probably be said about Church and money.
Shouldn’t we – instead of rebuilding the Church – be redesigning it? Or maybe even re-discovering it? The fact is that we now have more in common with the Church of the New Testament era, than what we did when we had money, power and status. We would do well if we rediscovered our roots.
Church beyond the walls
One of the scenes of the burning Notre Dame that really moved me, was of parishioners sadly singing hymns, while looking onto their beloved church ablaze. I wanted to comfort them. I wanted to tell them that their church did not burn down. It just moved. Their church were now there where they stood and sang the hymns.
Considerate of the fact that the blaze at Notre Dame is a tremendous loss of architecture, culture and history – we must also say: “It was not a church that burnt down. It was a building”.
We desperately need – not only to rediscover – but also to redefine what “Church” is. For many people, “church” is the building where we gather. Or at best, “church” is the Sunday morning timeslot when we meet. But “Church” according to the New Testament, is the people.
When I saw the Church singing hymns while the Notre Dame building was burning down, I saw a picture of the future Church: Small. Fluid. Non-hierarchical. Streamlined. Simplified. Stripped-down of everything unnecessary. Unconfined by the walls of the institutional church. Vulnerable. Beautiful. And powerful beyond their imagination.
The first Friday after the blaze, will be Good Friday. A paradoxical day when mankind looked upon Jesus, and saw someone seemingly weak and defeated upon a cross. Yet, he was about to do his most powerful work in that hour.
A vulnerable, stripped-down Church might not attract 13 million tourists per year like the Notre Dame did. But it sure will change the lives of the people in the community.
Church’s center found intact
Firefighters fought the blaze throughout the night. Although two-thirds of the roof had been destroyed, president Macron said “the worst has been avoided”. The New York Post featured an article with the title “Center of Notre Dame cathedral miraculously intact”. The word “miraculously” caught my attention as ‘n curious choice of words. The post depicted photos of the cross inside the cathedral, just behind the altar.
My prayer is that the center of the worldwide Church would also be found “intact”. I am reminded of the words of Jesus “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matt 16:18). These words were in reply to Peter’s confession: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”.
Tragically, some have understood Jesus’ words to mean that He will build his Church on the body of Peter. They went and literally built a church of mortar and brick on Peter’s bones. This is where the Vatican is today.
But the more probable reading of the Greek implies that the Church Jesus was talking about, will not be built on Peter’s corpse, but on Peter’s confession. This is to be the center of our faith: Jesus is the messiah, the Son of the living God!
If it hasn’t dawned upon you by now, let me put it to you bluntly: The Church that is going to take us from here, is going to look radically different from the Church that got us to here. Yes, tumultuous times lies ahead.
But I’m not giving up on the bride. But it is an immense privilege to be part of the process in this day and age, of rediscovering the core of Church.