That's a Good Question: What Should we do When the Church Lets us Down?
The Church is where God has instituted the office of the preacher of the gospel. And if you are let-down, the gospel is what you need to hear.
More than once in my life, I have felt very let down by the church, and have more than once considered giving up on it all together. For some, if not all, the church is a difficult place to exist. The reason for this is simple. You see, often to our surprise, the church is full of sinners, sinners just like us. These sinners often hurt us in ways that are deeply personal. And sometimes the sinners who hurt us are the ones who are supposed to protect us, even shepherd us. This can feel like a deep and personal betrayal.
So, what do we do when the church has let us down? Well, we go back to church. You see, the church is that place where God has promised to give us what we need when we sinners are let down by other sinners; it is in the church where God gives us preachers of the gospel of Christ Jesus.
But let’s back up for a minute. What happens to us when we are let down by the church? Dr. Rod Rosenbladt addresses this question in his well consumed talk and now paper, “The Gospel for Those Broken by the Church.” Therein, Dr. Rosenbladt explains that our let-down by the church usually results not because we become disappointed in the gospel, but because the preaching is not that gospel, or because the sinners appointed to deliver it have failed us, or the people in the church have wronged us. He claims that the result is people who are likely still Christian but are either Christians who are mad at the church or sad because of the church.
Rod’s solution is simple, as he claims that the Scriptural form of law-gospel preaching is the key. As Rod says:
To this guy (the one let-down by the Church), the church and its behavior is the ‘scandal!’ (The real scandalon, according to Paul, is that we are sinners under condemnation, and cannot do anything to make things right with the holy God. The true scandalon is that someone else is going to have to satisfy God’s justice for us because we are unable –and unwilling – to do that). To put it another way, we sinners are in need of a divine Mediator. And without a divine Mediator, we are doomed. Scripture says, ‘There is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.’
In other words, the let-down sinner and former churchgoer needs a preacher that will tell them the truth in the form of law-gospel preaching. So here is that truth: You, let-down, sad and mad Christian are a sinner. You have sinned against the righteous demands of your Creator in thought, word, and deed. Because of this, you deserve God’s condemnation and punishment. You cannot save yourself. Rather, you need to be saved. And here is the good news: You have been saved by that same God when he sent his Son to be made man for you. His name is Christ Jesus. This Jesus lived a righteous life, for you. He died a mediating, sacrificial, and substitutionary death, for. And he rose again on the third day as the first fruits of your resurrection. He sits now at the right-hand of the father, mediating to the Father on your behalf. He is your savior, and all (including you) who trust in him will have everlasting life.
So then, asks the let-down Christians, do I trust in him? This is exactly, they say, what I cannot do. Well, you are correct that you cannot do this. Therefore, you need the Church and its preachers. Here, Luther’s explanation to the Third Article of the Apostle’s Creed in the Small Catechism is helpful. There Luther says:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.
So if you are let-down by the Church, I am sorry. I am sorry that the system, the people, the hypocrites, and the other sinners like you have let you down. But the Church is where God has instituted the office of the preacher of the gospel. And if you are let-down, the gospel is what you need to hear. This is what the Augsburg Confession says to us in Article V:
That we may obtain this faith, the Ministry of Teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel, to wit, that God, not for our own merits, but for Christ’s sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake.
It is only the power of the preached gospel that not only brings the sinner to trust in Christ as their only hope for salvation, but keeps and sustains Christians, too, in that one true faith. The Gospel is literally the power of God unto salvation (Rom 1:16). When we are let-down by the Church we need to be absolved of our sanctimony and sin and receive the gifts of God, the word, and the Sacraments. Yet God had promised that these will come to us when a preacher he has called to his church stands in his stead and proclaims and administers them to us. God works through means: word, Sacrament, sinners, and even his church. Our task when we are let-down and when we are simply in need––and it is at times a task––is to find a church where the word is preached, and the Sacraments are rightly administered by a Preacher.
And here is the dirty little secret I’ve been avoiding this whole time: we are all let-down Christians who are in need. We all need a preacher of the gospel, which means we all need to get to a church so that the gifts of God can be showered over us, and we can be restored and renewed by his word and his sacraments for us. The gifts of God in Christ will restore all of us let-down Christians.
In the name of Jesus, Amen.