The Slow Burn

Contributing Writer
Pastor Shawn Hannon
Hope Lutheran Church, Arcade, NY

The fire at Notre Dame was devastating on a global level. To watch more than 800 years of tradition go up in smoke was almost too much to bear. Immediately following we rushed to our smart phones to acknowledge the loss. Pictures from family vacations and semesters abroad flooded our newsfeeds. We offered our prayers. We pledged our finances. We shouted, “We will not let the church fall. We are Notre Dame.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with a colleague nearly 10 years ago. His congregation was experiencing unprecedented growth. They had a new building and healthy attendance. Volunteers flooded their ministries with ideas and energy and delight. As a new pastor, after several minutes of listening to him I needed to know what the secret was. “Easy,” he told me, “church fire.” I laughed. He was serious. The church burnt down the year before, and as the community watched the steeple fall, they rallied. They rebuilt. They reinvested. They doubled down. And good for them.

But it all got me wondering, and I mention this without meaning any disrespect toward Notre Dame or any other church that has suffered what I am sure is unfathomable sorrow at the destruction of a house of worship, why does it take a church fire for us to remember the importance of the role of faith in our lives and community? And here’s the greater question: Why do we only care when our churches burn or fall at once instead of the slow decline that most churches in the western world are currently experiencing?

We know why, of course. Because when churches burn we are struck by the instant reminder of their impermanence. We come face to face with the reality that the buildings we worship will not always be there. And that is scary news to hear. So scary, in fact, that it is at least part of why Jesus was condemned to die. They called him a blasphemer for saying the stones of the temple would not remain forever. Killing Jesus was as easier pill to swallow than the notion of the temple’s fall. We hate the idea of our churches falling, so when it happens recommit, reinvest, and rebuild.

And most of the time, that’s good, but what concerns me is that we do not share the same grief and outrage over the slow burn that is consuming our churches right now. The slow burn of apathy and busyness that is causing our churches to struggle and close. The slow burn of poor leadership by pastors and consumeristic tendencies of parishioners that is driving us apart. The slow burn that is wasting away our churches until one day we look and see rubble.

Thom Rainer estimates between 6,000-10,000 churches are dying each year in the US. That means 100-200 will close this week. They’ll close without a fire. You won’t catch the story on the news or see a picture your friend posted of them standing in front of it a couple years ago. But at one point in time the ministry of that church mattered to people and to a community. Now it’s gone, and there are no campaigns for slow burns.

As a pastor, I don’t see every church death as sad. In fact, many times I rejoice at the resurrection I am sure God will raise from it. But some church deaths are avoidable. Don’t wait for a fire to reinvest or rebuild. The church needs your energy, your new ideas, and your commitment to God’s mission in the world today.

For more inspiration and insights from Pastor Scott and Pastor Shawn’s past columns, please visit and click on the Faith Matters page. The Jamestown Gazette is proud to present our county’s most creative and original writers for your enjoyment and enlightenment.

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Pastor Shawn Hannon
Pastor Shawn is a 2010 graduate of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina, and he began his call at Hope Lutheran Church, Arcade NY that summer. While he spent four years learning and serving churches in South and North Carolina, as a Jamestown, NY native, Western New York has always been home. He is glad to be here. Pastor Shawn and his wife Carol Hannon met while attending SUNY Geneseo in the mid-2000s. They have enjoyed making their home together in Arcade with their daughters Quinn and Perry.   Pastor Shawn has a background in youth and outdoor ministry. He is a former camper and staff person at Lake Chautauqua Lutheran Center in Bemus Point, NY. He has also served camps in urban settings and oversees in Madagascar. In seminary he was recognized for gifts in Greek and New Testament, and in his senior year was recognized with awards in both Preaching and Biblical Studies. Pastor Shawn continues to emphasize the youth in his ministry, but not simply because they are the future church, but because they are the church of today.  He also enjoys working on service projects, and takes the role of planning meaningful and engaging worship seriously.  He loves helping people find ways to put their passion and energy to work making their community and other people’s worlds a better place. When he is not working at church, Shawn enjoys remodeling and construction projects around his family’s home.  But as busy as he gets, PS always has time for a quick nine (okay, 18) on the golf course. He enjoys playing sports of all kinds and fiddling with his guitar.