Watching one’s church burn is painful and horrifying. The people of Paris who prayed and sang as flames engulfed Notre Dame Cathedral on April 15 did not need to be members of its Catholic parish to feel shock and sorrow.
As a symbol of France, the 850-year-old Gothic structure belongs to all Parisians. As a masterpiece of architecture, it belongs to the world. It belongs in a special way to all who have felt their souls and spirits lifted while gazing up at the 140-foot ceiling as sunlight streams through the 13th-century stained-glass rose windows.
Though it draws more secular tourists than religious pilgrims, Notre Dame stands as a testament to the spiritual power of a beautiful, sacred place to turn people’s hearts to toward God.
Many of us love our own, humbler church buildings for this very reason. We love them for the memories of milestone events — baptisms, weddings, funerals. We love them as the places where we’ve shared a spiritual journey with a community of faith — for some of us, the story of a lifetime in one building.
Because it is natural to love a church building, it is shocking to watch a fire destroy it, as Mennonite congregations can attest. Salem Mennonite Church of Freeman, S.D., in 1985, Eden Mennonite Church of Moundridge, Kan., in 1988 and Hillsboro (Kan.) Mennonite Brethren Church in 2004 are prominent examples.
Not all church buildings are loved. A congregation burdened with a structure that’s antiquated, too big, too small or a money pit might envy the Amish, who have no use for churches but meet in members’ homes.
While it’s not wrong to love a church building, the Amish tradition has a lot to commend it: All we really need is a place to gather. Congregations that meet in other kinds of utilitarian spaces — converted storefronts, warehouses, theaters — know better than most that the church is people, not walls and a roof.
Is it possible to love an old church too much? Yes, if we let maintenance detract from mission. Or allow outward beauty to conceal inward decline — or indifference toward neighbors. Most towns have no shortage of churches but not enough ministries that impact the community with God’s love.
Refining fire is a biblical idea, and a catastrophe might contain a blessing. Don Ratzlaff, a longtime member of Hillsboro MB Church, believes the fire that destroyed “the Big MB” 15 years ago was a God-given chance for a do-over. He says the congregation learned “to take our eyes off the brick and mortar and seek out people needing comfort, friendship and a place to find faith and hope.”
The old building “wasn’t particularly welcoming,” Ratzlaff says, “and maybe we who lived and served within it for so long neglected to find ways to bring people inside.” The fire brought the freedom to design a more welcoming structure and to envision new ministries, like a day-care center.
“A spirit of financial generosity emerged during the time of rebuilding,” he says. “We have a sense of mission and of sacrifice that continues to this day.”
We pray for a refining fire, if not a literal one.