Church on Fire

Martin Thielen

May 1, 2020

Two weeks ago we hit the one-year anniversary of the burning of Notre Dame in Paris. Last April 15, like millions of others, I felt heartbroken as I watched Notre Dame Cathedral burn.

Sadly, much of the damage was self-inflicted. Years of deferred maintenance made the building vulnerable to fire, including not replacing ancient rotting wood. Thankfully, much of the cathedral was saved, although it will take massive amounts of time and money to rebuild.

The tragic image of a famous cathedral on fire serves as a powerful metaphor for the twenty-first century church. For decades, we’ve been watching the church burn down, at least in the Western world.

For example, in 1975, mainline protestants made up 30 percent of the American population. Now mainliners only make up 10 percent of the population.

In the 1990s, evangelical Christians made up 30 percent of the U.S. population. Evangelicals have decreased to 23 percent, and they continue to decline.

Back in 1972 only 5 percent of Americans had no religious affiliation. Today the “nones” make up 25 percent of the population and are rapidly growing, especially among young adults.

People with no religion are the fastest-growing religious group in America. A Gallup poll revealed that the percentage of Americans who belong to a church has fallen from 70 percent in 1999 to about 50 percent today, an all-time low. Clearly, we are watching the rapid demise of institutional religion.

Sadly, much of the fire is self-inflicted, and nobody is innocent. Every major Christian group has contributed to the destruction.

Many mainline churches have refused to keep up with changing times. Many evangelical churches have become judgmental and partisan. The Roman Catholic Church failed miserably in the pedophile priest crisis. And plenty of Orthodox churches have become pawns of the government in numerous countries.

The end result is that the church is burning down. And that’s not all bad news. The church needs a purifying burn. Institutional religion in the twenty-first century clearly is not what Jesus had in mind. A lot of religious trappings need to be burned away.

However, not all is lost. Much of value remains—especially the story, teachings, example, and spirit of Jesus—which still resonate with people, even in the modern age.

Massive changes are occurring in today’s church. However painful, these changes hold the possibility of great promise. For example, perhaps tomorrow’s church will obsess less about doctrinal purity and focus more on following the example and teachings of Jesus.

Perhaps tomorrow’s church will put less emphasis on institutional concerns, and devote more energy into advancing the kingdom of God. Perhaps tomorrow’s church will stop judging people who are different from them and get serious about loving God and neighbor.

Yes, the church is on fire. And the flames are a frightful sight for many laypeople, clergy, and religious institutions. Things will look dramatically different after the blaze stops. But the essentials will remain. And in God’s hands the renovation may prove even more beautiful than the original.

Photo (thumbnail, featured) credit:  GodefroyParis, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons