What’s Wrong with the Church?

I wrote this 14 years ago for Vox Sine Nomine. It’s still true to today.

The London Times asked a number of writers for essays on the topic “What’s Wrong with the World?”  G. K. Chesterton sent in the shortest reply.  “Dear Sirs: I am.”  When you or I begin pondering what is wrong with our own church, district, or synod, I suggest we start where Chesterton did.  What’s wrong with the church?  Why I am of course.  We may be able to find this or that wrong with it at one time or another, but we will certainly always find ourselves wrong with it.

I must confess that for this reason I have always been uncomfortable with two oft quoted remarks by giants in our church.  Walther said that a pastor must preach in such a way so as not only to be understood but so that he could not be misunderstood.  If this is a litmus test of faithfulness in the ministry, I have failed miserably because I am continually surprised to hear what my hearers have heard me say.  Don’t misunderstand. It isn’t always bad; in fact, it’s more often good than bad.  I know it’s coming when one of my members begins with, It’s like you said in your sermon last Sunday…”  What comes out of their mouth next is not something I said.  Frequently, it isn’t remotely close to what I preached.

If you think the above is bad, you=re going to think what follows is terrible because now I am going to refer to what the giant of giants said.  Luther said that a pastor should never come down from the pulpit and ask for the forgiveness of sins.  I must confess that I do sometimes.  Not for what I have said (I have never consciously preached false doctrine, but I have to admit if my sermons from the first four years of my ministry were not providentially lost in my last move, I would be nervous about a doctrinal review.),  but certainly for how I have said it.  There could have been more, better, different illustrations.  I should have made this point and not belabored that point, and I wonder if anyone at all got this point.

Yes, when the question comes up of what=s wrong with the church, I must say I am.  For this reason, I have always found great comfort in the pastor=s daily prayer in the old Agenda.  It says things like: “especially do I acknowledge my indolence in prayer, my neglect of Thy Word, and my seeking after good days and vainglory.”  And “In and by myself I am wholly incompetent to perform the work of this great office.”  The author of this prayer knew what Chesterton did and I found out.

What’s wrong with the church?  I am.  Well, I is and I ain’t.  When I was installed in a Michigan congregation [November 1987], John Heins, the president of the Michigan District preached the installation sermon.  I don=t know whether he used a “standard” installation sermon or wrote one just for mine, but it was wonderful.  There I was in front of God and the entire congregation, and President Heins said that God called Paul Harris to be pastor at St. Stephen and nobody else.  God wasn’t expecting, needing, or secretly wanting somebody else here.  God wanted my strengths, my weakness, my quirks, my way of ministry at this location.  All God wanted at this fold was the shepherd called Paul Harris.

How my heart soared.  I was God’s gift to this congregation!  (He also said the congregation was God’s gift to me.) I wasn’t to second-guess God and doubt whether I belonged at this place.  I didn’t have to wonder if maybe I could serve someplace else better.  When people got mad at me or were fed up with me, I could still know that God wanted me at this location just as I was without one plea.  Maybe there were better qualified pastors for this congregation, but I was the one God called.

When I ask myself what’s wrong with the church?  I have to admit I am.  This is godly; the Holy Spirit always leads us to repentance.  But He doesn’t lead to despair.  Godly sorrow works repentance; satanic sorrow works despair.  Lest I despair over how inadequate I am for shepherding or vine-dressing, I am to remember I didn’t run without being called; I didn’t herald apart from the King giving me His message; I didn’t climb over the wall of the sheepfold, I came through the Door; I didn’t declare myself to be a vine-dresser I was ordained one by Christ Himself.

What’s wrong with the church?  Well we sinners are of course.  That’s why the Bride of Christ has to be washed, clothed, and adorned by her Groom.  And that’s what He is doing with Word, Water, Bread and Wine in the hands of sinners like me.  So while I am part of the problem, I’m also part of Christ’s solution.  By God’s grace may I be more of the latter than the former.

About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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