Why Go to Church?

By Bob Hiller

This past week, I was made a part of a new Facebook group called “What Would Nagel Say?” It is a page dedicated to all things Norman Nagel. Now, I was never blessed to have Dr. Nagel for a class while in seminary, though he was still teaching there when I attended. But I do have some good recollections of his presence on campus. His chapel sermons stood out in my mind for two reasons. First, they were soaked in the blood of Jesus. Second, he would always start leaving the pulpit before he stopped talking. It was kind of awesome. I also recall Dr. Nagel sitting in the pews of the chapel going through the hymnals so he could scrape out the name of the person who donated that particular book. That is as rad as it gets!

I never really appreciated Dr. Nagel beyond those quirks until I was actually in the parish and was able to listen to him on the radio or find some of his other material (books, articles, etc.). For those who don’t know, Dr. Nagel is among the best teachers of Law and Gospel and preachers of the goods in recent Lutheran history. He is a magician of making truth stick with lines that nail you to the floor and set you free. I forget where I found it, but on my notes for prepping my sermons I have written down this Nagelism: “First, one must look for what of Jesus the text is trying to deliver; then one must look for what gets in the way of the delivery.” This alone opens up a world of Christ-centered Law and Gospel preaching!

Anyhow, while perusing all the gems on the WWNS? page, I came across a quote I heard him say years ago on Issues, Etc. that was formative for my thinking. In an interview on why one must go to church, Nagel said, “When you go to church, you should leave and say, ‘You know, you can’t hear that anywhere else.'” In other words, the message you hear on Sunday should not reflect the message you hear in every other aspect of life. Let me explain.

The reality of our lives is that we are suffocated by the law of demand and expectation at every turn. Our lives are stories of rewards or consequences. Your boss expects and demands. Your spouse expects and demands. Your kids expect and demand. Your parents expect and demand. Your teachers and professors expect and demand. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In many ways, it is a good thing. Even so, it is the expectations and demands that can ultimately crush us. But it is the pattern of our world. And though we catch glimpses of grace here and there in everyday life, generally speaking, our world’s language is of “expect and demand.”


Sunday morning should be different. When you enter the sanctuary bearing on your backs the demands and expectations of the week, crushed by the burdens of your vocations and failures, guilty and hurt, you should hear something you don’t hear anywhere else: grace and mercy from Jesus Christ—overwhelming, blood-soaked mercy. To be sure, there will be harsh words that you must hear, for so much of how we think is shaped by a pattern that fights against grace and mercy. As Nagel says, so much gets in the way of the delivery. That stuff needs to be killed in us. But, once dead, we are right where we need to be to hear grace and mercy. There we are enlivened and set free to be what God made us to be in our vocation for the next week. Church should not be merely demand and expectation. But rather, take and eat, take and drink, the body and blood, the grace and mercy, of Jesus Christ given for you, given to you.

It is sad to say you cannot hear this sort of thing anywhere else. I’d love to say that you do. But it isn’t true. Your life and mine are enshrouded with demand and expectation. But Jesus has something else to tell you altogether: You are free, forgiven, and purchased with blood. It is a joy to say that Christ gives a place to hear just that: the mouth of a preacher.

I thank God for preachers and teachers like Dr. Nagel who free their hearers with the grace and mercy of God. I pray to the Lord of the harvest that He would send more and would send one for you. Even if you cannot find one, go to listen to Dr. Nagel wherever he may be found on the internet. Christ will be heard by you when you do.