By The Rev. J. Patrick Niles is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Hilbert, Wisc.
This post has been a long time in the making. For the past decade, every time I read a post by some avant-garde religious/church-planting/emergent/post-modern blogger, I think, “Hmmmmm. I should respond to that.” Then kids need diaper changes, sermons need to be written and shut-ins need to be visited. Right now, however, I have some time to write a response.
Time and time again, I have read blog posts about how the church is doing church wrong. The church is a victim of its ambivalence toward its own perpetual exclusivity of the present generation who has needs that are not being met. And each time I read the same list of an interchangeable 5-7 attributes (unloving, culturally irrelevant, superficial worship and unintelligible jargon are ones that top the list most often), I realize that the ire and frustration comes from a misunderstanding of what church is. So let’s break the silence on behalf of the church . . . the Church . . . the historical Christian Church. I am tired of being misrepresented. I am tired of being judged (sound familiar?). I am tired of disenfranchised people making more people disenfranchised with an improper understanding of church. And so, without further ado . . .
1. We want you here. Really. We do. However, the reason might surprise you. It is not to boost the average age of the worshiping community to give us more “street cred.” It is not so that we can have your money. It is not so that we can legitimize our existence. As a matter of fact, the reason that we want you here has nothing to do with us. It has everything to do with you. We firmly believe that God distributes His good gifts of grace and forgiveness in the worship service. We learn together. We grow together. Christ is present for us, and we want you to have those good gifts of God. We want to pray with you. We want to praise God with you. We want to be at the font and the altar with you. We want to hear from the pulpit with you. And we want all of this for your good. We’re already getting the goods. We want you to have them also.
2. We are not better than you. However, we do have the same struggles as you do. Namely, we struggle with sin. We have the same inclinations toward pride, jealousy, selfish ambition and self-aggrandizement that you do. We like things a certain way. We like our carpets certain colors. We like people to dress certain ways because those ways make us feel comfortable. We can be hypocritical, judgmental and prejudiced without cause. We are all of these things because we are sinners. No, dear culture, we are not better than you. But that is why we are here every Sunday. We do not seek to be confirmed in those things that divide us. We seek to be forgiven for the times when we do not act like Christ. And we are. We are forgiven and renewed by Christ, and that makes all the difference. You do not want us to judge you by your checkered-past of sins? Why would you judge us by ours?
3. The church is for sinners of whom we are the worst. The church is the place where God has ordained the forgiveness of sins to take place. The church exists to proclaim the Gospel. It exists to proclaim that you are a sinner, but you are a forgiven sinner when repentant. Why would you exclude yourself from that because you are surrounded by other sinners? Are you differentiating sins and making one sin worse than another? Judging, by chance? Hmmm. Interesting. Please forgive the snark, but this is the point that is made time and time again by the historical Christian Church. We are sinners and we are saints! We are forgiven only by the blood of Christ. The blood of Christ is for us. The blood of Christ is for you. We beg you, come–for your sake, not ours.
4. The church is bigger than you. This is the part that you might not like to hear, but it is the truth. The church is not about you, your preferences or your tastes. The church is about Jesus. It is about the Son of God who came down to earth in humility as part of His creation. It is about this same God-man who dies willingly on the cross bearing the sins of the whole world–bearing your sins. It is about Jesus who left your sins in the tomb and rose victorious to reign for you. It is about the victorious Christ who will come again, who will create a new heaven and a new earth, who will restore these lowly bodies to be like His glorious body by the power that allows Him to subdue all things to Himself. This is the church in which uncounted saints have had their uncounted sins forgiven. Uncounted souls have been saved through the waters of Holy Baptism, taught through countless hours of instruction, bowed at numerous altars and received the infinite body and blood of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and strength for their lives in Him. This church is the voice of ages of martyrs who have not recanted the faith that we make to appear so malleable. This church has a language, an order, a life that is bigger than you. It is a life that includes 90-year-old Uncle Bud and 9-day-old Stryker. It is a life that is big enough to include you also. So if you want to be part of this church, show some initiative. Learn the language. Learn the story of the church that spans all time and space in the promises and words of Jesus. This. brings us to point number 5.
5. We will always be here . . . and so will Christ. For you. Thank you for your concern about our demise. However, throughout the entirety of the Scriptures, the Lord has promised that the pure preaching and teaching of His Word will not vanish from the earth. There will always be a remnant who live in and proclaim the forgiveness of Christ. It might not always look the same or be the same size. But it will always exist. So when you realize that the forgiveness of Christ is more than the trifles of interpersonal relationships, we will be here . . . and so will Christ. When you want to stop poking holes in the very institution that was created to give you comfort of sins forgiven and the certainty of salvation, we will be here . . . and so will Christ. He will always be here for you with all you need and more.
Please understand that we do want you, because Christ wants you. My snarkiness and righteous indignation is not really aimed at those who are legitimately searching. They are aimed at those who wish to co-opt the church for their own agendas. Their agendas and straw-man portrayals of the church are not what the church is. If you are legitimately searching, I pray you find a biblical, confessional, Lutheran congregation in which to abide. For in that place you will find the true and pure preaching and teaching of the Word of God. You also find Christ who gives Himself for you every time you come. Please, come, not for our sake, but for yours.
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