This week the world watched aghast as images flickered across social media of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris engulfed in flames. As we all know, this majestic building survived the French Revolution and Nazi occupation, but is now partially in cinders. Even when rebuilt, an incalculable cultural and religious treasure is irrevocably lost. It’s, of course, easy to see why my Roman Catholic friends would be in such anguish, but what about the rest of us? Apart from the loss of a civilizational achievement, should low-church Christians care about what happens to a cathedral?
Even as Paris fire services were attempting to put out the flame, my friend Seth Brown, editor of the North Carolina Baptist newspaper the Biblical Recorder posted on social media a warning to all of us in American evangelicalism. Brown said that we should remember that there’s something between “The church is not the building but the people” and “Buildings don’t matter.” He’s exactly right.
For many, buildings, or other signs of rootedness, become the point. That’s why we can see architectural wonders in major cities sitting empty. And it’s why we’ve seen some orthodox (small “o”) Christians buckle beneath outright heresy, for fear of losing their church buildings to their theologically-adrift denominations. And, of course, how many evangelical congregations are ripped apart by arguments about buildings. The jokes we tell about church splits over the “color of the carpet” are ubiquitous because they are rooted in countless true stories. Moreover, we’ve seen numerous churches sacrifice their mission for indebtedness, shackling generations to pay for enormous facilities.
Plus, in evangelical circles, many of the most dynamic, missions-sending, evangelistic churches are those not very tied to buildings. Of all the things that cheer my heart in seeing what God is doing in a resurgent evangelical church-planting movement in North America, architecture is not high on the list.
The church of Jesus Christ, globally and locally, is not consigned to a specific building or set of buildings. That’s true. That doesn’t mean, though, that place doesn’t matter. The Bible speaks repeatedly of making markers of where grace was found. After crossing the Jordan into the Land of Promise, Joshua commanded the people to set up twelve stones as a memorial for future generations. “When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do these stones mean to you?” then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord,” Joshua said. “So these stones shall be to the people a memorial forever” (Josh. 4:6-7).
And when God delivers his people from the Philistines, the prophet Samuel erects a stone memorial there, naming it “Ebenezer” (1 Sam. 7:2-14). This is why I cringe every time a hymn takes out “Ebenezer” from the lyrics of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” They will say, “But people don’t know what it means.” And the answer is: “That’s the point! To teach them!” Sorry. You do not want to get me started on this topic.
Look at the names of many churches around the country and around the world. Many of them are named after places marked out to remember the interruptions of grace: “Bethel,” for instance. That’s good and right.
Too much rootedness can cause us to mistake our land of sojourn for the kingdom, causing us to forget that we are wayfarers and strangers. But not enough rootedness can cause us to grow ungrateful for the ways that God has acted in space and time, for us. That’s true not just in the broad sweep of redemptive history, but also in your own life.
When I go back to my home church, I can see exactly where I first heard the gospel, where I was baptized, where I memorized the word that now enlivens my psyche. There are other places I can go and see exactly where I was when I prayed for something specific in my life, where I worked through with God a difficult decision. That’s a blessing, not because those places are enchanted, but because God moves in many ways, and one of those ways is through memory. A memory pointed toward gratitude can be a sign of grace.
Buildings matter. Buildings are not ultimate. We need both catacombs and cathedrals. We need churches meeting in homes and schools and movie theaters, to remind us that we are citizens of heaven, and we need structures and stability to remind us that we are connected to generations before us and to come.
Notre Dame is a remarkable building. France, and the world, should grieve, and should then rebuild. We are right to lament the loss, but we are right also to be reminded of what cannot be lost. Cathedrals can be shaken; the kingdom never can be.