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 www.jamestowngazette.com 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.