What the Burning of Notre Dame Says About the American Church

"Now is the time for us to embrace, not ignore, our call to care for our neighbors in need—body, soul, and spirit—regardless of their creed, race, politics, gender, or affiliations."

The Notre Dame Cathedral burned in April 2019. The burning revealed neglect, rot, and decay both by the French society and the Catholic Church. The American church is experiencing the same revelation of neglect, rot, and decay.

The world watched in disbelief as the Cathedral of Notre Dame engulfed in flames. Regardless of your stance on the Roman Catholic Church, ornate church buildings, Gothic art, or institutional religion, Notre Dame is a symbol of the faith and art, and this sight gave us all a cause to reflect. 

Many evangelical American Christians found this event as an omen to the collapse of Christian culture. Articles soon emerged, articulating this symbolism. For those Christians, the fires of secularization, pluralism, and post-modernism have turned to ash a once-powerful “Christian society.” But at a year’s distance, perhaps we are able to reflect more holistically on the state of that church and the Church. 

In the days after the fire, images and insights began to emerge. In the horror of the massive flames, we forgot that the cathedral was mostly made of stone and as the fires were extinguished, the cathedral remained. More majestically, the cross and other permanent icons still stood, largely unscathed by the inferno. 

On a more humbling note, reports emerged that the treasured spire that had fallen to the flame had actually been slowly rotting away because of inadequate care. The fires had removed only what was already decaying and had left behind what of the cathedral was still strong. 

This is how Christians should see the changes happening to the Church in our cultures today. I Corinthians 3:11–13 tells us: “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.”

What Is Consumed

For instance, the rot in the spire is symbolic of the recent plague of moral failings and scandals in Church leadership. Protestants and Catholics alike have witnessed many of their clergy being exposed as entrapped in unrepentant sin. Let the Church continue to see a purifying fire remove this sin—and any systems that have fostered it—from her midst.

Likewise, the wooden roof is the Christian “bubble.” Evangelical or fundamentalist circles had retreated from the public sphere, creating not countercultural movements of change but isolationist communes of “safety” where we protect our own false idea of a Christian culture by falling silent to the world around us. This isolationism has led to a confusion about how we approach our fellow man that does not know the love of God. Most mournful is that they don’t know this love because we have not shared it. My prayer is that the American church would be drawn out of hiding and engage a culture with the true love of God. 

However, to do this, we also need to burn away with the refiner’s fire the rotten language of hate and discrimination and political rhetoric that has become conflated with Biblical text. Any hate hidden in our holiness, prejudice masquerading in our purity, discrimination disguised in our diversity or consumerism sold as creativity: these are the kinds of things that are deplorable and unnecessary to the Christian faith that will be removed. 

Our current phase of social distancing caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is, hopefully, detoxing us from our need for world tour-grade bands and audio-visual lighting systems. There’s nothing wrong with all that, but if that has become an idol for anyone, that wooden idol is now being burned away. We are entering a short season where house churches are literally the only option. I know I will delight in the chance to go back to my Sunday morning church services and worship with my fellow brothers and sisters when this is all done, but I pray that I see a community that has a reoriented vision of our faith. 

What Remains

With this social distancing, we are seeing a new revelation of the Church not being burned away but being burned back to its foundations. Technology allows us to still hear sermons and sing along with well-mixed songs of praise, but attentions are forced to look at our faith as something other than our gatherings and experiences. We can be more reflective about our faith, but we can also be more active with our faith. 

We are a movement of people called and empowered to give life to those around us. The Holy Spirit is frequently called the Giver of Life (most famously in the Nicene Creed), and The Spirit does this giving by cooperating with the work of the body of Christ: you and me. This is the foundation and walls that remain of the global Church. 

During and after Notre Dame burned, citizens of the world raised funds to save and resurrect the important cultural icon. Likewise, now is the time for us to embrace, not ignore, our call to care for our neighbors in need—body, soul, and spirit—regardless of their creed, race, politics, gender, or affiliations. The church building can once again be a hospital of the whole person where the church people are the hands and feet of the Great Physician (Luke 5:31–32). The church that remains will be those that, by the power of the Spirit, will minister God’s favor to the poor, captive, blind, and oppressed. The church that remains will be those known for their selflessness, not their celebrities. The church that remains will be those that find God in the ordinary and live extraordinarily. The church that remains will be those that live and talk by the Spirit in a way that help people taste and see that the Lord is good. 

How to Rebuild

I believe we will rebuild as a Church with influence in our culture by recognizing a different kind of fire is ablaze in the global church. The “global south” is becoming the new epicenter of the Christian faith. Outside the western world, millions are finding or rediscovering the powerful truths of gospel. Even amidst severe persecution in some parts, the fires of spiritual revival rage across South America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. We in the western church have much to learn from our global brothers and sisters. Christianity is meant to be contextualized, and that is different than being compromised. The diversity of the global church should tell us that how we think of “church” is not the norm: it is just a single expression. 

Let faith arise in a symphony of expressions so that every community may hear the heartbeat of the good news. Every man, woman, and child needs to know the love of God in his or her life and that they have been invited to participate in a redeemed humanity. This is the Spirit’s call. This is our tongues of fire. Secularism doesn’t change this. Pastoral scandals don’t change this. Conservatives and Liberals don’t change this. Darkness doesn’t change this. The unwavering truth of God’s sacrificial love for His creation remains unchanged regardless of what cultural fires are ablaze. The chief cornerstone remains. The firm foundation remains. The cross remains. 

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Jordan Covarelli
Jordan Covarellihttps://collective.tku.edu
Jordan Covarelli is a coordinator of Music and Worship Studies at The King's University where he is pursuing a PhD in Church Music and Worship.