Blood Stained Pews:
How Vulnerability Transforms a Broken Church
into a Church for the Broken
A Review by Dwight A. Moody
This is a terrible, no good, very bad book.
You have to look no further than the footnote on page 138 to sense the sorry state of judgment that has befallen this young minister. There, for all to read, is his misguided slam against the class of the National Football League, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
I write this (full disclosure) as a former pastor of Pittsburgh people including (in God’s good providence) some of those Pittsburgh Steelers.
But there are two other facts you need to know to assess the worthiness of this review. First, I am family to Rev. Kuhl, brother to his mother; which makes him my nephew and thus a person of whom I am extremely proud and for whom I often pray. Second, Rev. Kuhl is a very fine preacher and writer; and in this book, these two vocations come together in a most appealing way.
Blood Stained Pews demonstrates the homiletic eye of the author. Before he was a writer, Rev. Kuhl was a preacher, which explains why on every page of this book—almost literally—there is a story, an anecdote, an episode right out of life. These observations are harnessed in such a way as to pull the gospel where it needs to go: right to soul of the reader.
The chief story is, of course, the one that gives title to the book. Kuhl tells of his own trip to Normandy, to the site of the most consequential battle in modern warfare: the invasion of France in June of 1944. The modern-day tourist is ushered into a church sanctuary, one that had been commandeered into combat as a field hospital. There, American soldiers Kenneth Moore and Robert Wright tended to the sick and dying. There, the blood of wounded soldiers is still visible on, yes, the blood stained pews.
Kuhl uses this lingering testimony of “care for the dying” (to quote a gospel song long before his time) to frame his witness to what church needs to be: a place and a people who welcome the weak, who confess to their own weakness, and who cry out together for mercy and strength. Church, he writes, is “the place where the wounded are welcome.”
But it is not: not the place where the wounded are welcome…unless, of course, they keep their problems to themselves. This is what often happens in church, and it is this reality that justifies the charge of “hypocrite” for many who occupy the upholstered chairs of our worship centers.
Kuhl’s book (and his preaching) is a protest against this way of doing church. He wants a place and a people where confession of sin, selfishness, and pseudo spirituality is the currency of exchange.
Kuhl himself takes the lead in this matter, writing frankly about his own shortcomings, drawing from his journey as a person, a spouse, a parent, and a pastor. He thus takes sides in the long-running tension between those who embrace autobiographical material in the pulpit and those who eschew it as focusing too much attention on the preacher.
I’ve heard eloquent appeals from advocates of each, and this book certainly takes its place as one of the better representatives of the former. This is one important place where uncle and nephew agree, namely, that those of us who have met Jesus as Risen Lord have a godly duty to share the truth of what it means to be a sinner saved by grace, an ordinary and fallible person gripped by the grit and glory of Jesus.
Not that all facts and feelings are needed in the pulpit or, for that matter, in the prayer circle. Yes, fakeness falsifies the gospel, and frankness opens up a highway to health, happiness, and holiness (as Kuhl illustrates time and again in this book). But it is possible to speak what needs to be said for authenticity and accountability without revealing what can only result in shock, dismay, and gossip.
There is something missing in this book, though, the sort of thing that is often missing from my own sermons (conditioned as they are by the standards of a bygone era). What is missing is sociological data that demonstrates the spiritual and organizational impact this sort of ministry strategy produces. What is the long-term impact on individuals, families, and congregations when people start confessing their sins, sharing their secrets, admitting their faults, and owning up to their dreams (as silly as they may be)? Surely, there have been studies on this sort of practice, given how dominant sociological research has become in the religion business. Somewhere there are studies small and large that track the outcomes, intended or otherwise, of leading a church in this way. I wonder.
What I do not wonder, though, is the wisdom of Kuhl adding his own testimony to others, more famous and influential, such as John Claypool and Frederick Buechner, both of whom wrote classics in the field.
And Sam Shoemaker, the Episcopal priest whose compelling poem “I Stand by the Door” Kuhl quotes (144f) approvingly. But does the good reverend with connections to both Louisville and Baltimore realize that Shoemaker (who was born and buried in Baltimore) was pastor of Calvary Church in … Pittsburgh!!