Monday, April 15, was another bad day for the church. And to borrow from the title of a well-known children’s book, the church has had a number of “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad” days lately.
As most of the world knows by now, the famed Notre Dame cathedral of Paris caught fire on April 15, suffering extensive damage to the shock and chagrin of a spectating world. Even the famously “post-Christian” French citizens seemed deeply affected by the sight of the renown spire of the cathedral falling to the ground engulfed in a ball of fire during Holy Week.
Various news commentators speculated about why people around the world felt such grief at the sight of a collapsing cathedral. It may be hard to improve upon Philip Sheldrake’s description of cathedrals as “sacred spaces” that bring heaven down to earth “by the juxtaposition of vast spaces and intimate spaces…(bathed) in a flood of light.” Evidently, even the most hardened skeptics desire to be in spaces where they can feel “something” that transcends themselves.
One commentator, though, caught my attention when she suggested that the specter of Notre Dame burning was a metaphor for the modern church. Her immediate context was the sex scandal that engulfs the Roman Catholic Church. Sadly, most of us are all too familiar with the hundreds of accusations of the sexual abuse, perpetrated by priests, involving children and nuns, as well as the cover-ups that ensued. This scandal has weakened the Catholic Church around the world, costing it millions of dollars and thousands of members.
But observers of the church know that the challenges of this 2,000-year-old institution extend far beyond the problems of the Catholic Church. A more complete list of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad issues confronting the Church include:
- The recent burning of three African-American churches in Louisiana from fires set by the son of a white deputy, highlighting the racism that still plagues our country and our churches;
- The recent reports of widespread sexual abuse of women and children perpetrated by clergy in Protestant churches around the country;
- The recent scandals, involving the abuse of power and sexuality, regarding high profile pastors of mega-churches, leading to deep disillusionment among members and the near collapse of the congregations they lead;
- The offense created by the close identification of the white evangelical church with the current White House, causing many people, especially millennials and people of color, to give up on the church;
- The precipitous decline of traditional churches (thousands of members die each year), and the concomitant fragmentation and decline of most denominations;
- The burnout and breakdown of church leaders, leading to the departure of thousands of people from the ministry each year in the U.S.
These and many other challenges have led more than one church observer to wonder if the institutional structure of the church as we have known it is about to collapse.
But I have hope, not so much for individual churches but for the Church with a capital “C” (what Scripture calls the Body of Christ). My hope is based on the fact that out of the supreme tragedy of the crucifixion of Jesus came a miraculous resurrection on Easter that eventually led to the birth of the Church. I also have hope because we human beings have souls that have longings for God, no matter how enculturated we become with our secular surroundings.
I currently serve a ministry called the Transforming Center (TC), headquartered in the suburbs of Chicago, Ill. The TC pays very close attention to the human soul. Indeed, the mission of the TC is to “create space for God to strengthen the souls of leaders and transform communities.” I’ve had the privilege of journeying with hundreds of leaders in “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad” shape, watching their souls “be resurrected from the grave” and return to their ministry settings with a fresh commitment to bring their soul-renewal to their churches.
I look forward to the day when those hallowed structures that have burned are restored. But the renewal of a church burning and collapsing will not be accomplished with modern architects and contractors. It will be an intentional, sustained focus on our soul’s deep longing for God that will lead us into “the paths everlasting.”