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The Church and Happiness

The Church and Happiness

by Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

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from LF Winter 2018

Q: What do the church and happiness have in common?
A: Neither can be pursued directly, for each is a consequence of pursuing something else.

Eleven and a half years ago, I introduced myself as the new editor of Lutheran Forum. In preparing to say words of farewell in this, my final issue, I re-read that article and discovered that I have been thinking the exact same thoughts all these years. I’m not sure whether I should be commended for fidelity to my vision or criticized for the narrowness of my range!

That first editorial was entitled “Church Breaks Your Heart”—and that was back in 2007. Since then, plenty of a heartbreaking nature has taken place in the church (locally, denominationally, ecumenically, globally), even more heartbreaking than I could have foreseen at the time. Meanwhile, our wider society appears to have entered into competition with the church to prove itself even more fractured, disputatious, and heartbreaking.

I remarked in the article that our churches tended either toward Galatia and its circle-the-wagon legalism or toward Corinth and its anything-goes permissiveness, but also that there was an alternative—the church of Philippi, a church that prompted St. Paul to shed tears of joy, not rage or sorrow. I therefore dedicated my editorship to the church in Philippi, with the hope that the pages of Lutheran Forum would “map out, in some small way, the path to Philippi, to a church that is on balance more faithful than faithless.” [1]

Now, as I say goodbye, I find myself disinclined to dwell on the heartbreakingness of the church. Not, obviously, because it’s any less heartbreaking than it was before. But in the intervening period, the church’s heartbreaking qualities have come to be set in a different perspective. And the change of perspective has been enough to make me happy, and sometimes even happy about the church.

To put it simply: church causes unhappiness when we take it to be the primary object of our pursuit. Then it snares our attention. It invites our tinkering—or revamping—or overhauling. We are determined variously to produce a pure church, or a big church, or an inclusive church, or an activist church, or a bulwark church, or a this-timewe’ll- get-it-right church—and in every case, what we really pursue is a church made in our own image. And then the sisters and brothers who are pursuing some other vision of church become obstacles to our success instead of fellow patients in God’s hospital. And much unhappiness ensues.

This isn’t to say that church is irrelevant or optional or undeserving of our attention. But church doesn’t come by our pursuit of it. It is the result of striving toward other things; a gift bestowed, not a product manufactured.

Pursuit of the Word of God

Church doesn’t come by pursuing church: it comes by pursuing the word of God.

As usual, Luther says it with rare and acute insight:

For the church was born by the word of promise through faith, and by this same word is nourished and preserved. That is to say, it is the promises of God that make the church, and not the church that makes the promise of God. For the Word of God is incomparably superior to the church, and in this Word the church, being a creature, has nothing to decree, ordain, or make, but only to be decreed, ordained, and made. [2]

And again: “For since the church owes its birth to the Word, is nourished, aided and strengthened by it, it is obvious that it cannot be without the Word. If it is without the Word it ceases to be the church.” [3]

No Lutheran church on earth would claim to be governed otherwise than by the word of God. What we say and what we do, however, are not necessarily the same thing.

As mentioned above, I once characterized our Lutheran churches in America as tending toward Galatia or Corinth, but I’m no longer sure that’s quite right. There is more than enough legalism and permissiveness alike to go around. After more than a decade of close observation now, I’d put it differently: our churches tend either to suffocate or to starve.

Those that suffocate do so because they smother the word of God, not with silence or neglect but with control, fear, and immobility. The outcome is determined before the reading has even begun. The cart pulls the horse. The dice turn up double-sixes every time, and gradually you begin to suspect that the whole system’s rigged. The air is stagnant and never circulates until finally all the oxygen is gone from the room.

Those that starve do so because they refuse to feed on the word of God. They dislike it, distrust it, and disdain it. It’s too problematic and therefore better left alone. It is granted formal appearances, of course, but it is not the object of pursuit anymore. Other things are more urgent to pursue, and when the people in pursuit of those other things burn out or flag or fail, the only thing to do is smack them harder with the urgency of whatever it is. We all know the quality of decisions made by hungry, hassled people.

I’m not inclined to judge which way is worse: after all, we can’t survive without air or food, so in the end either way it’s death. But in both cases the root cause is a fundamental distrust of the word of God as found in Holy Scripture. Strategies of control are set in place to prevent it from getting out of hand and upsetting our carefully designed and regulated churches—the real concern, so it seems.

The situation may be even more dire than that, as indicated by Brent A. Strawn’s dramatically titled book, The Old Testament Is Dying. With more than anecdotes and intuition to undergird his claim, supported by surveys of sermons and sociological data, Strawn contends that all too many Christian people, groups, and churches

do not regard the Old Testament in the same way (or as highly) as the New Testament, do not understand the Old Testament, would prefer to do without the Old Testament, and for all practical purposes do exactly that by means of their neglect and ignorance of it, whether in private devotion or public worship or both… Indeed, in many circles, the claim “The Old Testament is dying,” as stark as it is, is not nearly stark enough. “The Old Testament is dead’ is far more accurate.” [4]

If that isn’t enough to inspire panic—and it should be—Strawn argues, again with good support, that once the Old Testament has died, the New isn’t far behind. The gospel cannot be sustained on the Gospels alone, or the Epistles: it needs the firm foundation of Israel’s encounter with the Lord behind and beneath it at all times. “For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:46–47).

I can only say with sorrow how much this corroborates with my own experience. I rarely hear sermons on the Old Testament by itself. If the day’s reading is mentioned at all, it’s almost always in the neat prophecyand-proof package that the lectionary so patronizingly supplies. No surprise, then, that pastors don’t take the Old Testament seriously, or feel justified in omitting it from the worship service altogether, or have unknowingly absorbed the quiet supercessionism signaled, for example, by the vanishing of the Old Testament during the Easter season, as the new church of Acts displaces the old people of Israel.

It hardly need be said that Lutherans do not have a great track record with the Jews and Judaism, so continued dismissal of the Old Testament cannot be an option for us anymore. We need to rediscover the Old Testament as Scripture in its own right (which is how the New Testament authors saw it!), not as a foil for the gospel, not as an embarrassing book of animal sacrifices and tribalism offset by a few prophets who conveniently say things we think anyway.

Take the scroll and eat! Sometimes the word of God is the waybread that revives us in the desert. Sometimes it is the strong medicine that goes down like poison before it cures the ills within. Much of it is disturbing: good! A Scripture that never unsettles could hardly qualify as holy. Let us debate and dispute—but let it always be the object of our pursuit. It will do what it needs to do, what the Spirit deems we need, individually and communally. [5]

Dear Lutherans: take the word of God out of the box, let it breathe, feed the hungry with it, and church will come.

Pursuit of the Nations of the World 

Church doesn’t come by pursuing church: it comes by pursuing the nations of the world.

But there is pursuit and then there is pursuit; there is evangelism and then there is proselytism. Evangelism seeks to hand on the apostolic word to those who have not yet received it, in trust and confidence that through it and at the right time the Holy Spirit will effect faith, salvation, and indeed the church. Proselytism is a program of church growth for alien reasons. It invites the nations in because they shore us up on one side or the other of our own culture wars, or because they improve our color scheme and thereby our self-image, or because they pay the bills.

We are really good at persuading ourselves that we’re in it only for evangelism and never for proselytism. But as long as our goal in mission is the church as we know it—or as we idealize it—and not the handing on of the word as commanded by the risen Lord to all the nations of the earth, then we are at best compassionate colonizers. All colonizers think they have the conquered terrritory’s best interests at heart. Even attempts to decolonize devolve into a new colonialism if the object is a new-and-improved church rather than communication of the word of God. And much unhappiness ensues.

One of the most remarkable books I have ever read in this regard is Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered. [6] It’s not a very apt title; Church Remade would be more accurate. Donovan was a priest in east Africa, troubled by the maxim that the Masai were “unconvertable,” not to mention ungrateful for consistently refusing offers of schools, hospitals, literacy, plumbing, electricity, vehicles, and (of course) church. So he asked for permission to try a new tactic: he would go to them with nothing but the gospel. No gifts—not even medicine, not even food—nothing but the message about Jesus Christ.

As it turned out, Donovan’s mission succeeded where a century’s worth of others had failed. It seems so obvious, yet it rubs hard against the best of our charitable impulses and our ongoing fear of being accused of having failed to feed the hungry or clothe the naked or visit the needy.

What is even more remarkable than Donovan’s success at reaching the “unconvertable,” though, is the shape that the church took among the Masai. Worship was remade, the ministry was remade, relationships between men and women and different age groups were remade—all by the word that they heard and believed. I hope these tantalizing details are enough to make you rush right off and read it yourself. It will help you imagine what the word can do among the nations when the church doesn’t get in the way. The result might just be—church.

On a more personal note: I began my editorship about halfway through a soul-wrecking first call. I may have thought church broke my heart when I wrote my first editorial, but I hadn’t seen anything yet. The folks I served were not bad people, or anyway no worse than any other collection of sinners. The hard truth I discovered was that a false notion of church, a sick and a word-resistant notion, governed everything in that place from top to bottom.

I don’t know how exactly it happened. I have no reason to think my predecessors were particularly bad at their job (and certainly no worse than me). If anything, once I saw the horrifying logical outcome of the functional ecclesiology in my own congregation, I began to see it, in less advanced forms, in congregations I’d assumed to be healthy—which meant, long-term, that they were headed in the same direction as mine, infected with the same disease. It was such a sickening prospect that by the time I resigned I had to take a few months off church altogether to uncurl from spiritual fetal position. The only sensible thing I did during that period, when I wasn’t raging at God, was to rediscover the Scripture as a source of life and not as a professional resource. [7]

What came next was an unexpected and undeserved gift—namely, church. During our years in Strasbourg my family and I started attending the local Church of England parish. In many ways it left a lot to be desired: dreary Victorian hymns played by an underskilled organist, a distinct tendency toward the sacrifice of the mass in the communion liturgy, and too often preaching that seemed far more interested in church than gospel, religion than grace (though, thanks be to God, there were also faithful preachers to leaven the lump).

We went at all because the congregation spoke English and welcomed fellow foreigners like us. At the time I didn’t think that was an especially legitimate reason for choosing a church. But this congregation of foreigners—lots of Nigerians, many Malagasy, British, French, Americans and Canadians, folks from Ghana and Egypt and Pakistan and Italy and Zimbabwe and Latvia and more—unwittingly disclosed parts of the Scripture to me that I hadn’t understood before.

Until then, it never occurred to me that “the nations” were an integral part of the biblical message and the gospel task. Sure, I got the point of mission, but on some unspoken level it always seemed to be mainly about bringing them in to a stable, pre-existing, and self-evidently-so entity.

As part of that fellowship of foreigners, though, I began to see that the redeemer’s mission of collecting all the nations He had created for the purpose of making them holy is, in fact, the ongoing calling and crafting of the church. The church, therefore, is always being created again as Christ gathers in the estranged from “all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). [8] Church is what results when Christ “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14) between the peoples of the earth.

You don’t have to move abroad to experience this. There are foreigners everywhere, of all kinds. Having been a literal foreigner myself on multiple occasions, I plead with locals and natives to open their eyes and hearts to the awkward outsiders in their midst who speak with funny accents and behave in apparently strange ways. Trust me, they need friends. But even if there are literally no foreigners in your town, it is a sure thing that there are people estranged from God and from others, foreigners to the church.

Dear Lutherans: pursue the nations with the word of God, not because it serves your interests or image of the church, but because they need to hear the gospel, and you need to have your church remade by Christ through their presence.

Pursuit of Sinners and Enemies

Church doesn’t come by pursuing church: it comes by the Son of God pursuing sinners and enemies. 

It’s easy to get inured to the gospel, especially if you’ve been living and breathing it for as long as you can remember. But these words never fail to startle me and set back on track my own drifting ecclesiology: 

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12–13) “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for He is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.” (Luke 6:35) “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10) “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17) “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” (Romans 5:6) “God shows His love for us that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:10) “For our sake He made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (II Corinthians 5:21) “But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” (Galatians 3:22) 

Why is it so hard to keep the most stunning part of the gospel in the forefront of our minds? Perhaps because it literally stuns us; our brains shut down and we can’t accept the spirituality transplant it requires.

Christ came not for the good. Not even for the ones who wanted to be good or tried to be good. Not for his well-meaning allies, not for the ones who remembered to say thanks. He came for the unrighteous, the sinners, the ungrateful, the evil, the lost, the condemned, the ungodly. In short: his enemies. The ones who don’t want to be saved at all, whether because they don’t think they need it or because they frankly prefer their sins to God’s company. Christ wanted so much to rescue and redeem his enemies that he became sin for their sake, a curse for their sake, and then simply offered his redemption as a gift, knowing full well that some wouldn’t want the full pardon and the steadfast love and the everlasting life, if it meant conceding their enemy status.

Two thousand years later we are still stunned by the news and still haven’t figured out how to be a church that corresponds to its message. Because what could such a church be? Only a perpetual embarrassment. People selected chiefly on account of their disqualification to accomplish great things. A fellowship of such sinners that backbiting and betrayal are an inevitability. Ambassadors who constantly consider defecting to the other side. How can God expect to win more to His church with that kind of public relations campaign? Unless, of course, that is exactly the point. A church that is comprised of sinners and enemies cannot be other than a church comprised of sinners and enemies! In recovery, we hope; at war with the sin within, we hope; struck down daily and raised up again to new life daily, we hope. But a church that is really Christ’s church for Christ’s sinners and enemies is going to have to take that risk and suffer, as Christ did, the ungrateful and the evil and the ungodly.

Certainly, if we are not continually naming, confessing, and confronting the sin, the wonder of God’s vast and shocking love will be lost. But it has to be love for a “true and not a fictitious” sinner. [9] Nothing will ever convince us more thoroughly that salvation is God’s doing and not our own. Dear Lutherans: there are no imperatives until the indicatives have had their way with us. Be it known that God is in pursuit of you, as He is in pursuit of all His other enemies, in order to build up His church. May He be swift to capture you!

As Luther once observed, for some people “nothing can be said so well that they will not spoil it by misunderstanding it.” [10] So let me be clear: matters in the life of the church like its order of ministry, structures of governance, hymnals, statements, publications, charities, and so forth aren’t matters of utter indifference. They aren’t simply to be ignored with an ecclesiologically sophisticated sigh, no matter their treachery or disorderedness. But let us not mistake any of them for the church itself—and if the church itself is not to be the direct object of our pursuit, how much less these tertiary matters! A denomination, a congregation, a service institution is a tool, not the goal. I very strongly doubt that these tools can be put to best use (or even good use) as long as they are taken to be the goal itself. Frantic efforts to fix them over the past half-century seem only to have given rise to more misery. Controversy itself is tired.

Let us release our tight grip on these tools for the time being and turn again in pursuit of the word of God and the nations. In so doing we will find that we, sinners and enemies though we are, are being pursued by the Lord God of Israel, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And then we will become His church. And then we may even be happy.

Dear Lutherans: may you become Philippians, “that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (1:9).

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is associate pastor of Tokyo Lutheran Church in Tokyo, Japan and blogs at

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1. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, “Church Breaks Your Heart,” Lutheran Forum 41/3 (2007): 5.

2. Martin Luther, “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” in Luther’s Works, American Edition, 82 vols., eds. J. Pelikan and H. Lehmann (St. Louis and Philadelphia: Concordia and Fortress, 1955ff.) [hereafter cited as LW], 36:107.

3. Martin Luther, “Concerning the Ministry,” LW 40:37.

4. Brent A. Strawn, The Old Testament Is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 5.

5. For more on this, see my article “Eat the Scroll,” Word & World 37/4 (2017): 321–329, online at <>.

6. Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai (London: SCM, 1978).

7. I describe this experience at more length in “Paying My Dues,” in The Church Has Left the Building, eds. Michael Plekon, Maria Gwyn McDowell, and Elizabeth Schroeder (Eugene: Cascade, 2016), 78–86.

8. More on this point and how it completely altered my previously hostile attitude toward the book of Acts in “The Acts of St. Alban’s in Strasbourg,” The Living Church (October 16, 2016): 14–17, <>.

9. LW 48:281–2, from Luther’s famous “sin boldly” letter to Melanchthon.

10. LW 31:372.

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