Ecclesiastical Pornography

By Bob Hiller

call-day

The tryouts have come to an end, the experts have put in their analysis, back-room negotiations amongst the powers-that-be are nearly at a close, draft sheets are ready, and the commissioner is getting ready for some serious hand-shaking. No, I’m not talking about next week’s NFL Draft. I am talking about call day for our Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod seminarians (taking place April 29th). Call day marks one of the most significant days in the life of a pastor. The service is full of fear and anticipation. Every year at that service a district president is invited to preach about life in the parish. All I remember from our preacher are the words: “You’ll forget everything I am about to say…” He nailed it. But, this got me thinking: What would I say if I were given the opportunity to preach at a call service? Lord willing, I’ll never be a district president. However, the chance to preach at that service would be thrilling. My sermon would read something like this:

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Esteemed President of the Synod, members of the respected Synodical presidium, beloved seminary faculty, men sitting in waiting for your first call to the Holy Ministry, and dear friends in Christ: Stop looking at pornography. I know, this seems a bit rude of me, to speak so forthrightly. But, I really think you should stop looking at porn. It is ruining you. It is going to ruin your family. It is going to ruin your church. Just cancel your subscriptions to those websites and throw away all your old magazines. It is time, especially for you men who are about to enter the field, to crucify that part of the flesh which you have given to such lustful and covetous ideals. You are going to be pastors of congregations, and that pornography you spend all your time drooling over is going to wreck your ministry. So, stop looking at it.

looking at porn

Now, I’m not talking about the pervert kind of porn (though, for the sake of all things holy, don’t look at that either!). No, I’m talking about what Eugene Peterson has called “ecclesiastical pornography.” Peterson says,

Parish glamorization, is ecclesiastical pornography—taking photographs (skillfully airbrushed) or drawing pictures of congregations that are without spot or wrinkle, the shapes that a few parishes have for a few short years. These provocatively posed pictures are devoid of personal relationships. The pictures excite a lust for domination, for gratification, for uninvolved and impersonal spirituality. (Under the Unpredictable Plant)

Soon, you are leaving the seminary and you have in your mind an ideal marriage. You are going to a church that may have a few problems. But, you know that once you’re ordained, you’ll fix that church right up! You’ll purge her of all false teaching (Grandma Annie won’t be a Zwinglian when I’m done with her!). You’ll preach sermons and series that will attract all sorts of new, young faces! You’ll find ways to fix the congregation’s debt while laying the groundwork for new, exciting ministries. You’ll develop new strategies that will grow the church. You’ll create a perfect communion policy that will both make visitors feel welcome and lovingly fence the table. You’ll fix that church right up and make her beautiful. You’ll be on the cover Lutheran Witness before you know it! You will save this church!

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But she won’t follow you anywhere. One, you’re not nearly as impressive as you might think. Two, things won’t change the way you think they will. It will start slow, you’ll notice her worship services aren’t as sexy as those you experienced while at seminary. But, then, things will get rough. She’ll blame you for old problems. She’ll refuse to accept your “seminary influenced” thinking. She’ll deny the real presence ten minutes after receiving it from your hand. She’ll blame you for her decline and expect you to fix more problems than you can handle. She’ll interrupt all your brilliant sermon prep with people sinning their way into your office to talk about issues you couldn’t possibly dream of solving. She’ll be a downright sinful mess, and your frustration will only perpetuate the problem.

So, you’ll look for answers. You’ll start visiting websites that promise big results with little investment. There will be no shortage of magazines and invitations to programs and conferences that will promise easy solutions. You’ll dream of those glorious days at seminary where theology was purely and ideally academic and didn’t cause people to walk out of your church. You’ll covet congregations that seem to have everything in order and are experiencing nothing but success. Or you may be the type who visits those kinky websites that like to violently pummel every other church they see, just so you feel better about your own inabilities. Instead of doing the hard work of “getting your hands dirty with the soil of your congregation” (Peterson again), you’ll lust after other ministries and try their “techniques” as a way of fixing your church. And, if those don’t work, you’ll walk away with every wicked, self-justification you can conjure up in your little victimized heart.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. Other pastors will be able to help you and you’ll need their help. You’ll need men around you who can impart wisdom and who will invest in you. You must work to find brothers and mentors who have been through the trenches and know ways of handling difficulties. But, these are men who will invest in you and the church you serve, not ecclesiastical gurus who have impersonal techniques and one-size fits all programs.

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But, what are you expecting out of a church? Do you really think those seductive books you read are going to help you create a perfect congregation? I don’t care how closely you obey Hermann Sasse or Alan Hirsch, you will not ever have a perfect congregation. What George F. Will says of pitching in his masterful book Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball, is true of pastoring, “Perfect is the enemy of the good.” You and I too soon forget whom Jesus invites to dinner! All the perfect people who would make a perfect church were busy when the Lord sent out invitations, so He invited the sick, the broken, and the seedy to sit at the table. By His ridiculous grace, today He’s calling some of them to be pastors! No matter what you think of your church, it is stocked full of people Jesus decided to baptize clean of their sins. Where you see roadblocks to “real” ministry and professional advancement, Jesus sees beloved sheep He’s cleansed of sin in His blood. And, honestly, the only thing He has you there to do is give that to them. So hand over the goods. Give them the same Jesus you so desperately need.

Esteemed President of the Synod, members of the respected Synodical presidium, beloved seminary faculty, men sitting in waiting for your first call to the Holy Ministry, and dear friends in Christ: You are sinners who are bound to despise what the Lord has given you. And you are called to serve sinners bound to the same. Get over your pride. Stop looking at the porn. Repent of your covetous lust. Turn your eyes to the crucified One who bled and died for sinners who indulge pornography of all stripes. Hear His Word to you today, the only Word that will set you free, and the only Word you have to bring to your broken, sin-bound church: I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Throw out your porn, your sins are forgiven.  AMEN!

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