Have You Been Let Down By The Church? If So, Let Us Laugh About It Together!

Chances are that you have been sinned against by the church, that is the ecclesiastical institution.  If you haven't been wounded by the institutional church, I am sure that you are among many who have experienced the pain of being let down by the church.  For a much more serious handling of this subject CLICK HERE.  For a much more humorous reading on this subject, please read on.  

For me it has taken some time to come to the understanding that the institution of the church is not perfect like Christ.  I typically want to hold to that warm feeling of comfort and peace that I experienced growing up in church.  You might also have experienced this too.  Frankly, it can be hard to distinguish from Christ and His bride, the church.  It is easy to blame Christ when His church lets you down.  Frankly put, you and I need to distinguish the difference between sinful people that make up the church and Jesus the Head of the Church.  

The church is sinful because it contains sinners whereas Jesus was and is the sinless Lamb of God.  We cannot judge Jesus by the failures of His flock, but we get to see the flock through the accomplishment of Jesus, namely His atonement on the cross.  The flock consists of sinners saved by grace, sinners declared righteous for Christ's sake.

Pastor Eugene Peterson came to this realization in a tremendously unique way.  In his book, "Under the Unpredictable Plant," we encounter a very comical story of how Pastor Peterson began to realize that he could not derive his spiritual direction from the institution.  Enjoy this extremely funny account from Pastor Peterson,
I was, and am, grateful to the ecclesiastical institution that put me to work organizing a new congregation.  They ordained me.  They spent a lot of money on me.  They provided me with encouragement, advice, and counsel.  They gave me access to a tradition in theology and polity that is foundational and stabilizing.  At no time in the process I am recording did I repudiate this institution.  But I did learn that in addition to being a sinner myself (a key doctrine in my denomination's theology), the institution itself was also a sinner.  In those early years of my ordination I didn't understand the prevalence and depth of institutional sin. 
 I caught on soon enough.  One of the duties I had as the organizing pastor of a new church was to prepare a monthly report on my work and send it to a denominational executive in New York City.  It was not a difficult task, but it did take a day's work.  The first page was statistical: how many calls I made, how many people attended worship, a financial report of offerings, progress on building plans, committee activities.  This was followed by several pages of reflection on my pastoral ministry: what I understood of God's presence in my work theological ruminations on the church, my understanding of mission, areas of inadequacy that were showing up in my ministry, strengths and skills that seemed to be emerging.  After a few months of doing this, I got the impression that my superiors were not reading the second part.  I thought I would test out my impression and have a little fun on the side. 
So the next month, after dutifully compiling the statistical data, I turned to page two and described as best I could an imagined long, slow slide into depression.  I wrote that I had difficulty sleeping.  I couldn't pray.  I was getting the work done at a maintenance level but it was a robotic kind of thing with no spirit, no zest.  Having feelings and thoughts like this I was seriously questioning whether I should be a pastor at all.  Could they recommend a counselor for me?
Getting no response, I upped the ante.  The next month I developed a drinking problem which became evident one Sunday in the pulpit.  Everybody was very nice about it, but one of the Elders had to complete the sermon.  I felt that I was at the point where I needed treatment.  How should I go about getting it?
Still no response.  I got bolder.  The next month I cooked up an affair.  It started out innocently enough as I was attempting to comfort a woman through an abusive marriage, but something happened in the middle of it, and we ended up in bed together, only it wasn't a bed but one of the pews in the church where we were discovered when the ladies arranging flowers for Sunday worship walked in on us.  I thought it was all over for my ministry at that point, but it turned out that in this community swingers are very much admired, and on the next day, Sunday, attendance doubled.  
This was turning into a gala event one day each month in our house.  I would go to my study and write these wonderful fictions and then bring them out and read them to my wife.  We would laugh and laugh, collaborating by embellishing details.  
Next I reported some innovations I was making in the liturgy: This was the sixties, an era of liturgical reform and experimentation.  Our worship, I wrote to my supervisors, was about as dull as it could get.  I had read some scholarly guesses about a mushroom cult in Palestine in the first century in which Jesus must have been involved.  I thought it was worth a try.  I arranged for the purchase of some mushroom caps, peyote it was, and introduced them at our next celebration of the Eucharist.  It was the most terrific experience anybody had ever had in worship, absolutely dazzling.  But I didn't want to do anything that was in violation of our church constitution, and finding nothing in our Book of Order on this, could they please advise me on whether I was permitted to proceed these lines. 
These report-writing days were getting to be a lot of fun.   Month after month I sent the stories to the men and women who were overseeing the health of my spirituality and the integrity of my ministry.  Never did I get a response.  
At the end of three years I was released from their supervision.  As pastor and congregation, we were now more or less on our own--developed, organized, and on our way.  I went for debriefing to the denominational office in New York City under which I had worked.  They asked me to evaluate their supervision through the three years.  I told them I appreciated their help.  The checks arrived on time each month.  I was treated courteously at all times.  But there was one minor area of disappointment: they had never read past that first page of statistical reporting that I had sent in each month.  "Oh, but we did, " they said.  "We read those reports carefully; we take them very seriously."  "How can that be," I said.  "That time I asked for help with my drinking problem and you didn't respond.  That time I got involved in a sexual adventure and you didn't intervene.  That craziness that I reported when I was using peyote in the Eucharist and you did nothing."  Their faces were blank, and then confused--followed by a splendid vaudeville slapstick of buck-passing and excuse-making.  It was a wonderful moment.  I had them dead to rights.  I replay the scene in my imagination a couple of times a year, the way some people watch old Abbot and Costello movies.
The laughter and fun of those days, though, was cover for a deep disappointment: I had discovered that spirituality and vocationally I was on my own.  The people who ordained me and took responsibility for my work were interested in financial reports, attendance graphs, program planning.  But they were not interested in me.  They were not interested in my job; they cared little for my vocation.
My deeper discovery was that I was mistaken to expect anything else.  Spiritual direction doesn't come from institutions.  The institution has its necessary and proper place.  I could not function well without it, maybe not at all.  But I was quite mistaken to look for spiritual nurture and expect vocational counsel from the institution.
My friends, we do not derive our spiritual direction nor the Gospel from the ecclesiastical institution.  For all the value and benefits of the ecclesiastical institution we can never forget that the institution is not the same as Jesus.   The ecclesiastical institution is not the source of the Gospel.  Rather we receive the Gospel from God in His Word and Sacraments which are found in the ecclesiastical institution.  The church is made up of sinners, sinners that will fail time and time again.  However, praise be to God that He has chosen to save sinners like me and you and then call us together into Christian "Koinonia," to call us together as His church.  As the church of forgiven sinners, declared righteous by Christ's blood, we are continually saved and continually being grafted not into ourselves but into Christ and Him Crucified.

The institution will many times fail, but praise be to God that it is the Word and Sacraments that will not only sustain the church but you and me as we gather to receive these gifts from God.  We are the church that receives from God.  As God's church, sinful though we may be, we are continually cleansed because of Christ.  

To Read More On This Subject:
The Love For A Harlot