When Church Buildings Burn

The recent disasters involving church buildings around the world have drawn attention to the Christian faith but not for the right reasons.

Several weeks ago three historically Black churches in a small area of Louisiana were set on fire. Police have arrested a suspect who they believe is responsible for all three fires.

Then the day after Palm Sunday the world watched on live TV as the historic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was engulfed in a massive fire. In a city filled with tourist sites, Notre Dame was the number one attraction.

The week before Easter police arrested a man who was apparently intent on burning down St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. This incident reminds us that of the attacks we hear about there are probably dozens more that are planned but, for whatever reason, are never carried out.

On Easter Sunday, the holiest day in the church’s calendar, three churches and three hotels in Sri Lanka suffered extreme damage and horrific loss of life as the result of coordinated terror attacks. At one of the churches, where 25 people were killed, the suicide bomber was in the process of being escorted out of the building when he blew himself up otherwise things could have been much worse.

And on a personal note, Trinity Lutheran Church in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a beautiful, historic church that is dear to my family for a number of reasons, was heavily damaged by a fire almost one year ago. It’s been a rough year for church buildings and the people who worship in them.

What are church members to do when our buildings are destroyed? First, we remind ourselves that the church in essence is not a building. It is a gathering of forgiven sinners who have embraced a message of good news for all people as the Apostle John notes in Revelation 14: “Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people.”

And we recall the words of Jesus in Matthew 16: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

The first verse of the hymn, “Built on the Rock” says, “Built on the Rock, the Church shall stand, even when steeples are falling. Crumbled have spires in ev’ry land; bells still are chiming and calling. Calling the young and old to rest, but above all the souls distressed, longing for rest everlasting.”

And the Apostle Paul notes in 2 Corinthians 5: “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”

While church buildings may be temporary, the message of peace and salvation through faith in Jesus Christ that is proclaimed in them is eternal.

In response to this eternal, hell-defying message, artists over the centuries have produced some of the most profound works of art and architecture known to man. Churches have most often been the places where these artists have exhibited their talents.

In addition, church buildings are places where life-changing events take place. Baptisms, confirmations, weddings, funerals and countless other events that take place inside the walls of a church building make the structure so much more than just wood, brick and stone. So it is truly tragic when flames devour a church building.

While it is always hard to turn people away from worship, many churches have had to step up their security measures significantly. In some of the most dangerous areas of the world, going into the church to check the building for bombs before anyone arrives for worship has become as common as turning on the lights and putting on the coffee. Seminars are now offered in our area about ways to keep churches secure. Forewarned is forearmed.

Yet the greatest danger the churches face is not from those who would burn down our buildings and attack our worshippers. The greatest danger churches face is not being faithful to Jesus, the One who gave himself on the cross for our sins and who holds all power in heaven and on earth. Far too often we Christians have been our own worst enemies by following the ways of the world, falling for the devil’s deceptive schemes and failing to control the sinful nature that still clings to each of us.

Christians would far rather be in the news for bringing peace and hope to peoples’ hearts than for having their buildings torched. Whether it is from the deliberate attacks of terrorists or racists or accidental damage caused by human error, the physical buildings in which Christians gather to celebrate their faith and build each other up are always subject to damage by fire, wind and other disasters.

When these disasters happen we remember the Apostle Peter’s words in the first chapter of his first epistle. Through the power of Christ’s resurrection from the dead we have been given, “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

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