Stop Fixing the Church

By Paul Koch

It’s not that I enjoy spending the afternoon on my day off fixing things around the house. I would certainly love to be able to sit in the back yard, smoke my pipe, and sip on a bourbon without trying to fix something. But there is a certain reward that comes from fixing things. There is a sense of accomplishment, of doing something outside of my own head that has a lasting result. There is continuation of my children’s fantasy that dad can fix anything. And of course, there is always the appreciation of my bride, which never ceases to inspire.

While fixing a leaky toilet, faulty electrical outlet, or loose door handle may be simple things, they nevertheless seem to tap into a deep desire within us to be able to fix something. And that desire has never stopped at functional objects around the home; it has moved from the small and simple to large and complex systems. We want to fix the political system, fix the educational system, and fix the environment. We often speak about such things as if we know just what to do—with a tweak here and there or even a complete remodel.

Perhaps the most noble (not to mention audacious) of attempts to fix things is when we set our hands to fixing the Church. I suppose the problem is that, if you think there may be a variety of differing opinions of what is wrong and therefore how to fix the educational system in this country, why that variety would pale in comparison to the opinions of what is wrong and how to fix the Church. Things that I might view as deeply wrong and broken, others will laud as great things worthy of imitation. The only agreement seems to be that the Church needs fixing if it is to thrive in the current cultural milieu.

All of this gets reinforced every few years when a major study lines up the stats and highlights the decline of the Church. I remember going to a pastor’s conference years ago where we all read “unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity … And Why It Matters.” It was a synopsis of the “groundbreaking research” done by the Barna Group and was supposed to help our discussion as to how we might go about fixing the Church. Most recently we’ve all seen the latest release from the Pew Research Center on where the “nones” have gone—that increasingly growing section of our society that no longer identify with a particular religious group. When such research hits the marketplace, people rightly begin to try to figure out how we might fix the problem.

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In addressing just this issue the last week, my buddy Scott shared a story about Dr. Rosenbladt. Many years ago, he offered twelve Lutheran churches in the area to gather for a Q and A session on what Christianity is and what the bases for its truth claims are—a sort of apologetics primer. It would have been a great way to equip the flock and any curious outsiders with some tools and categories to give a reason for their hope. The offer was met with deafening silence. Scott then doubled down and made his own offer to try and help churches from simply becoming incubators for the next generation of “nones.” While I am happy to hear that he did get some positive response, it wasn’t exactly an overwhelming flood of invites.

But this made me wonder. Why, when there is an abundance of material available to show the broken nature of the Church, aren’t pastors eagerly searching out those with the expertise and training to fix these things?

Now, I think I have an answer. I don’t think it is very popular, but I think it just might be right.

Most pastors aren’t interested in fixing the Church. Most pastor’s eyes glaze over when reading the Pew Research Center or the Barna Group, then they shake off the confusion and get back to doing what they were doing before. I know it is what I’ve done and what I still do.

You see, the truth of the matter is, there is a large industry of fixes for the Church. A pastor working away in his study will receive emails, phone calls, and good old-fashioned snail mail offering him the best way to fix the Church. He will go to conferences and listen to experts about the latest research to make permanent fixes. Without a doubt, he has, from time to time, tried out one of these helpful fixes. He has probably had some small success here and there, but as a whole, the relentless grind of the vocation demands that he abandon the fixes and get down to the crafting of sermons and catechetical preparation over the maintaining of a fix.

I may be naive, but I think this should be applauded and not ridiculed.

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In the end, perhaps there are no real outside fixes to the Church. Perhaps the proclamation of the Law and Gospel, the administration of the Sacraments, and the dedication to teach our children the faith we’ve received will simply be broken, blemished, and always an unimpressive thing. And what we today classify as “nones” will later be called something else. That is just the way it goes.

Then again, if we stop fixing the Church and instead live in the freedom we’ve been given as part of the body of Christ, if we offer our gifts as we receive the gifts of others, why then I think we are on to something. If the teaching of the faith can be deepened and strengthened by your creativity, knowledge, and wisdom, then do it. If there are deficiencies in “the way things have always been done” something, then stand tall, point them out, and help make them better. There is no fix for the Church outside of the return of our Lord. In the meantime, what we have is each other.

“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” Ephesians 2:19-22

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14 thoughts on “Stop Fixing the Church

  1. I’m good with all that. On the other hand, I’m often told I’m all wet. Like everything else, we’ll see when it’s all set right by the one in charge of that.

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  2. The irony is that those who want to fix the church just end up doing more of what is breaking the church. If the first ten rounds of marketing, light shows, and self-help haven’t made more people want to stick around the church, then why do we think that another round of the same thing is going to help? It’s not a very logical conclusion.

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  3. So, I said: “1) Pastors ought to learn apologetics themselves to teach the youth (teach us all) to defend the faith and answer common questions. 2) Unashamedly search through everything taught in their church––either explicitly or implicitly––and utterly destroy anything that presents Christianity as a mere subjective feeling or set of moral platitudes unvaried from all the other bullshit religions of the world. 3) Focus on vigorously and defiantly proclaiming the unadulterated Gospel of Christ from the pulpit and give the Sacrament graciously from the altar, teach solid verifiable doctrine in the classroom, and answer apologetic questions, sometimes even before they’re asked.”

    Is this fixing the church? How does this differ from your sugesstion to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments? The only difference is that I acknowledge that every now and again someone might don your door who isn’t already “in the house” and that you might need to know how to answer some of their questions. Are you disagreeing with me regarding the need for apologetics and apologetics training?

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    1. I agree with everything you said in the above post, and I just meant to piggy-back off of that and point out how silly it is that people try to use all of these other unbiblical ways of “doing church,” and then they justify it with, “this is how we will get millennials into the church.” Their strategies obviously aren’t working, so maybe they should just go back to doing things the way that the church has always done them, which is essentially the same thing you’ve said above. Sorry if I wasn’t clear in what I was saying.

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    2. Great comment Scott,

      I’m certainly not disagreeing with you regarding the need for apologetics and apologetics training. As you well know my congregation has had several guests (including you) come to teach on such things over the past few years. In addition, we just did an apologetics boot camp with our youth in hopes to better equip them to be able to give a defense for their hope. Also in October I’ll be trying my own hand at doing the same sort of format with our adults.

      What I was trying to make clear was how I understand the resistance to bringing in experts to do just this. Why wasn’t Rosenbladt’s offer met with more of a positive response? I think it has to do with what I wrote about – there is a massive industry of fixes to the church!

      If apologetics is viewed as a thing unto itself (and therefore coming from the outside), apart from proclamation and catechesis I’m afraid it won’t make much headway in the congregations. Rather this should be part of the life of the place. Apologetics should be a deepening and strengthening of the catechesis and living in the words from the pulpit. I’m in agreement with all the points in that quote, it speaks of an organic reality that takes serious the dangers facing the church and not just a fix. But how do we get there?

      I admit I don’t offer any clear pathway to do this, other than to simply do it. To give the gifts you been called to give and receive the ones you need. You’re trying to do this by making yourself available to go and teach at no expense to the congregations which is an incredible offer (especially knowing how busy you are). In fact, I think this is exactly what The Thinking Fellows podcast and 1517 The Legacy Project are trying to do – to help congregation benefit from these resources.

      I think we need to challenge the idea though that the church can be fixed.

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      1. Thanks for the resonse. “Why wasn’t Rosenbladt’s offer met with more of a positive response?” Perhaps lazienss. Conjecture is just that; conjecture. The truth is we don’t know why. You speculate an adverse reaction to “fixes,” and my speculations are perhaps a bit darker. The principle of the things is, though, that saying pastoral training needs to be “fixed” is not a suggestion that the Church needs to be “fixed.” God’s church is God’s, but we tend to always think that our imagination and machinations of the day-to-day workings of it in everyday life are the right ones, even if we are wrong. I agree, as I said, Word and Sacrament. But a portion of the “Word” part has to be an ability to defend the “Word” which we proclaim. The “Church,” being Christ’s, is not in need of fixing, but some of the outward trappings and attitudes that we in our sin identify as the right way to do church often do.

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  4. Apologetics is valuable in today’s world. Past generations saw nominal Christians and walk-outs rejecting the church knowing what the church is. When we go into the world, we are facing people who don’t know what the church is or what is happening inside. It is foreign to them and they treat it, xenophobically. That is not so much rejection as ignorance. For the long-initiated, apologetics is a great thing. But I have seen the excitement of those new to the faith sharing the great new thing they’ve found and dragging other in the door more often than I have seen experienced, well-educated Lutherans reaching out. Do we leave church on Sunday wanting to tell everyone what we just found? Is the story ever new or an old reminder. Is it it exciting or sentimental? Are we not renewed?

    The Church, in terms of offering Word and Sacrament is fine. Certainly, catechesis is essential to maintaining but we cannot love, defensively, trying to preserve without sharing. We are not hiding in our fortress from the forces of the evil world. We won this war! Here’s the thing about conspicuously sharing – the Word, when it is spoken, comes to the speaker’s ears, as well. What preacher needs no preaching? Get out and share. Even making a simple statement about the Gospel, about grace, is God at work in our lives and the lives of others.

    Here, where I am, we knocked on the door of every parent who was not a member and had a child in VBS. We have a pastor known throughout the area by non-members, local businesses, all the hospitals, the local nursing homes (where he conducts weekday worship and study, once a week, in each of three), we have a Bethesda group home that trucks more than 10 miles to visit us even though there is a more established, aging, German LCMS congregation less than a mile from where they are – the people changing the diapers and pushing the wheelchairs need to hear, as well, as those with disabilities. And our pastor is there, once a week, for worship and study, as well. We have deacons who assist, shut ins to visit, we prayer walk local neighborhoods, we have non-members and non-Lutherans coming to worship, bible studies in our homes, we get them for midday Lent and Advent services, when the local towns have their “days,” we sent up a simple tent and do crazy things like engage people and ask them for prayer requests (we have a big board that we carry with us and we get repeat visits). We are ambassadors, not besieged villagers in a castle. We go out in love and friendship to live the free lives that we have been given. We go out knowing that God is at work and might be working through us. No failures, nothing to get depressed over.

    So, while THE CHURCH does not need to be fixed, if your church is fearing, looking inward, worried about the evil world and what it can do to you, not going out boldly, living out of the comfort zone, being overtly Christian, then your church needs fixing.

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  5. I say Amen to all that. The Gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church…no matter what it looks like to us. Let’s just be faithful to what our Lord has given us,Word,Sacraments,the Confessions.

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  6. For what they’re worth, these are my comments (from a Christian but not a good one, and seldom have other Christians I know agreed with my opinions):

    1) The Church is the body of Christ, He doesn’t need fixing, our attitudes do. We need to understand that we are worrying about things that Christ never talked about (committees, attendance at worship services, what songs to sing, what political causes to support, how to market the faith).

    2) They will know we are Christians by our love, by our forgiveness, by our personal priorities, by what is in our hearts and what comes out of our mouths. They will know when we kneel down and wash dirty feet, and when we make clear to everyone that they are precious children of God.

    3) Another unpopular opinion of mine is that statistics applies to Christianity. If you live in a predominantly Christian town, city, state, province and people that you see on a daily basis drive their cars like nobody else matters (who cares, I bought a fast car and I’ll show you how great it is even during a crowded rush hour), and treat children and teenagers and women and people with a different life style with condescension or impatience, then mathematically I am here to tell you that a lot of those people are Christians doing a fantastic job of scourging the body of Christ.

    4) As I said, I am a bad Christian. But as bad as I am I am still a precious child of God and I just wanted to tell you that this isn’t rocket science, I think we all know why the Church needs fixing.

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    1. You’re talking about going out and living the life we have received! that is the “fixing” that the Body of Christ too often needs. We are very good about doing church and often very poor at being the church. When we go out loving and caring fro our neighbors, let them know that their lives matter to us and to God, we bring the church into their lives. How they respond, whether they are reached at any other level, is beyond our control. But we grow in faith and fervent love, we have purpose beyond accepting our own salvation and receiving grace. When the Body of Christ stops going out in love, anything it has to say is static, nothing worth hearing, and unbelievers will make you aware of that, every time.

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      1. Thanks, your reply is much for succinct than mine! Yes, “doing church” vs. “being church” is what I was trying to say. That plus trying and failing at doing church is a complete train wreck, but trying and failing at being church is still a sincere sharing of your heart with another precious child of God. Peace be with you.

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