Staying Ugly in a Pandemic

In the ugly church we talk a lot about physical presence in messy lives, situations, and circumstances, modeling our ministry after that of Jesus.  We want to be about the business of touching “lepers” and breaking bread with “sinners.” With the coronavirus pandemic, our usual modes of connection have been cut off.  Visits to the prison, outreach at the rec center, recovery meetings or any other face-to-face gathering are off-limits. So, how do we minister under these circumstances?

Technology connects those who are connected to technology.  Worship services, Bible studies, and prayer meetings have moved online.  There are even AA and NA meetings available, if you have the ability to connect to them.  But what if you don’t? What if you find yourself cut off from the Church and the supports she provides to the community?  

This is the wrestling match going on inside my head: how do we practice social-distancing and self-quarantine while still meeting needs and sharing the love of Christ?  One of our Ugly Church partners, Daniel’s Table in Framingham, MA, is providing more food than ever to the hungry in its city. This means face-to-face interaction and close proximity to others.  But without it, bellies are empty and hopelessness creeps in. Some risk has to be incurred even as that risk is mitigated as much as possible. The same goes for the cashier at the grocery store and the relief staff at the homeless shelter.  Without some risk, everything comes to a screeching halt.

I would like to say that I have an easy answer or some simple guidelines for ugly ministry in a pandemic that doesn’t either isolate people or exacerbate the spread of the virus–but I don’t.  As I ponder and pray, I’m led to a middle way between fear and foolishness. If we all give in to fear, suffering increases. If we all disregard wisdom, suffering increases. What that middle way looks like depends on your  context. But what I believe with all my heart is that we can’t disengage from the suffering around us. We must be creative and careful to look after our neighbors, to provide for those without, and offer community to the isolated.  

I’m encouraged by the creative risk-takers and collaborators who are stepping into the gaps so that the forgotten don’t slip through.  I’m encouraged by the acts of generosity that overshadow those of greed and selfishness. I’m encouraged that the things we learn during this pandemic will serve us in finding new ways to love others in the future.  In the meantime, I’m praying we all find the middle way.  

We would love to hear your thoughts and stories of how you’re staying “ugly” in the new normal.  I’m praying that you stay safe and stay ugly.  

-ADM

The Funnel of Love (Not a Typo)

I’m naturally a visual person, which means I tend to think in pictures. As I was thinking about the way the Church typically approaches outreach and evangelism, it struck me as, well, backward. And the picture of a funnel came to mind. Based on what I understand about Jesus’ ministry and the way the modern human functions relationally, I drew the “amazing” picture you see above. It depicts the way I think the Church ought to engage those in need of Jesus.

John 14:6 lays out the exclusivity of Jesus’ claim as Savior, for He declared, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” If we take Jesus as His word, He is the truth. As we read throughout the Gospels, Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit again and again as the guide to truth, which is found in Jesus. The Holy Spirit does what we cannot; He convicts and corrects on the deepest spiritual level, drawing people to Christ. While our words and actions may be effective, the conviction of the the Holy Spirit is a far greater motivator.

The description of the early Church is that of love, self-sacrifice, community, and fellowship as they grew in the truth of Christ. When we read Acts 2 and the description of the early Church, it isn’t their claim on truth that led to more being added to their number every day. Love was the wide-open access point. They sought to know Jesus (i.e. truth) through the Scriptures, the teachings of the apostles, and prayer in the context of the loving fellowship of the Church.

Somewhere, somehow, the funnel got flipped upside down. Instead of casting a wide net of love, the evangelical Church too often seeks to love only those who pass a “truth” test. Pass the test and your reward is love and acceptance; fail it, and you find yourself on the outside looking in. When Jesus went to Levi’s house and ate with all the “sinners,” He led with love so that they would have an opportunity to find truth. Had Jesus done it the other way, He’d be eating by Himself!

Hopefully, our churches are funnels of love, wherein all people are being drawn ever closer to the truth and life found in Christ. For those of us who have been in this process for any length of time, we know it can be challenging and even painful as the Holy Spirit points out our need for continued repentance and surrender. And it’s a different experience for each of us, so we ought not look across the funnel at others and condemn their journey to Jesus because it looks different than ours. Instead, we should rejoice that we’re on this journey toward Christlikeness together. Remember, the disciples had unfettered access to Jesus for three years and still struggled to get things right!

Love first and always. Trust the Holy Spirit to move in the lives of those seeking truth as you love, encourage, and guide them toward Jesus. When speaking, do so from deep humility and grace, because we are the recipients of much grace. If your convictions are rock-solid, use them to build bridges, rather than barriers. Learn to listen to the stories of others and learn from their stories. This is the beauty of the Church, that we have been loved into the Kingdom and are being guided into truth, not so that we can guard the door, but so we can help others find Jesus, too.

Prayer for a New Year

 “What do you want for Christmas,” my wife asks me before Christmas.  My mind goes blank. What do I need? What do I want? I need to lose (quite) a few pounds.  I need to call my parents and my brother more often.  I want to slow down and be more present.  These aren’t things that fit easily into a stocking.  

What material things do I want for Christmas?  Well, that’s not any easier because the first things I think of are previous gifts that I haven’t managed to fully enjoy.  There’s the mandolin that sees too little practice, the multi-track recorder that hasn’t recorded a single full song, and the journaling Bible that has far too few scribbles and notes in it.  There are books on my shelf that still need reading.  

I’ve found Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 to be true, that if you seek after the kingdom of God and His righteousness He will take care of you.  As disappointing as it may be to the “health and wealth” crowd, it’s not necessarily luxury or extravagance by Western standards, but I’ve got no complaints.  The thing is, the more I’m willing to surrender, the less I want to cling onto and the less I want to acquire. If I could have anything, it would be to see His kingdom come, His will be done right here and now as it is in heaven, not just in part but in full. 

As I spoke with a man wrestling with the demons of alcoholism, his eyes wet with tears, I wanted nothing more than to grant him sobriety, to instantaneously remove the deep seated desire for the bottle, to remove the many, many years of drinking and the chaos it has wreaked upon his life.  I want to grant the same to those shooting up and overdosing in rented rooms, homeless shelter bathrooms, and cold alleyways.

I want to guarantee that my brother’s or my mother’s cancer won’t come back.  I want to assure the same for every person that has had to face that uncertainty in their lives.  I want to eradicate the need to choose between food and medicine, between paying rent or keeping on the heat.  I  want every hopeless soul to know that they are extravagantly loved by their Creator, so much so that He came to this earth in flesh and blood and  died so they can have full, abundant, and everlasting life.  

And so I’m okay with an empty stocking if that means a full life for someone else.  As Christmas has passed into a new year, and all the hopes a new year brings with it, this is my prayer–that the words of Isaiah 9 would come to pass in every darkened heart:

The people walking in darkness

have seen a great light;

on those living in the land of deep darkness

a light has dawned.

May it be so!

-ADM

Lifestyle, interrupted…

“Giving isn’t really giving until it interrupts your lifestyle.” unknown person wiser than me

I have a history of gaining and losing weight. Clothes are bought and then donated as they become too large or (usually) too small. It feels good to bag them up and give them to a local concern or ministry that can distribute them to those in need. What I’ve done hasn’t interrupted my lifestyle; in fact it facilitates it. It creates space in my closet, a vacuum that cries out to be filled. The same can be said for any other unwanted thing in our homes which we clear out to make room for new wanted things. I end up benefiting from the giving as much as the person receiving.

Jesus makes an observation (check out Mark 12: 41-44) as He sits across from the place where folks drop offerings into the temple treasury. The wealthy give great sums which amount to no great sacrifice. In contrast, a widow with a couple copper coins to her name drops them both into the treasury. Jesus points out that these two coins are all she has to live on, yet she still gives them. In so doing, she out-gives the wealthiest donor.

When we read this story our thoughts naturally go to financial giving, but aren’t we called to lay everything on the altar, to hold nothing back from Him? It seems we do a lot of mental and moral gymnastics to get around the kind of service, sacrifice, and even suffering that comes with following Jesus. Our time, treasure, and talents are too precious to us. We’re willing to give only as much as won’t actually change anything. The lifestyle we’re so worried about being interrupted needs to be interrupted!

When I was a freshman in high school, I served as a camp counselor at a church camp during the following summer and I worked with a young man who would become one of my closest friends. The following week of camp was for high school students and I wanted my new friend to come with me. But he couldn’t afford it. His mom was a single parent with two voracious teenage boys and simply couldn’t afford the fees. So I asked my parents if they could help, even though at the time my dad was struggling to find decent-paying work and we were surviving off my mom’s salary. To this day I don’t know how my parents came up with the money or what sacrifices they made personally, but they made it possible for us to go to camp together. It was a week that would shape our lives going forward, and was only made possible because they were willing to have their lifestyle, poor as it was, to be interrupted.

We are blessed so that we may bless others. Personally, I find that I’m the most blessed when it costs me the most, when the blessing of someone else requires a meaningful sacrifice on my part. It’s when we learn to live, love, and give like Jesus that we truly walk in His footsteps. And that’s the lifestyle I want to lead.

Haunting Questions

Two questions haunt me, and they’ve been haunting me for a long time. I read them early on in my ministry preparation, and despite the incredible volume of reading and studying in the years since, these two questions have never faded. One was posed by Matt Casper in Jim and Casper Go to Church, and the other by K.P. Yohannan in The Road to Reality.

Matt Casper is an atheist hired by Jim Henderson to visit and evaluate churches with him to get an “outsider’s” perspective. When visiting a popular church in a large city, as Casper took in the concert-style worship service with laser lights and fog machines, he looks at Jim and asks, “Is this what Jesus told you guys to do?” When I first read that line, I stopped short. My mouth might have fallen open a little bit. How much of what we do in the Church is in direct response to what Jesus told us to do? Laser lights and fog machines aside, how much isn’t?

In The Road to Reality, K.P. Yohannan provides an outsider perspective to the North American church as a pastor and evangelist from India. His wonder and awe at the prevalence of Christian churches in the United States is deflated by the prevalence of complacency and shallowness that he addresses bluntly by asking, “Since when has obedience to Christ and His Gospel become optional to Christianity?” The question hits me hard because I’m as guilty as anyone of trying to rationalize away or soften the hard edges of what it means to fully follow Jesus.

We do a great job at playing church but do everything we can to avoid the “lifestyle of sacrifice, service, and suffering for the sake of our Lord” to which we’re called. With all the activity and busyness of our churches, are we doing what Jesus told us to do? Are we treating the commands of Christ as directives to be followed or just suggestions to be considered? The truth is revealed in our actions and attitudes.

What We Need

As I look at the downtown neighborhood around the church I pastor, I can count at least a dozen different churches of various sizes and languages. It dawns on me that our neighborhood doesn’t need more churches. The area is essentially saturated with potential missional outposts for the Kingdom, assuming they are about the mission of the Kingdom. What they aren’t is unified. By “they” I mean we. Instead, we’re medieval in our makeup–little fiefs that make up a kingdom, but disjointed and obsessed with our own little corners. Meanwhile, the choir is being preached to and the outsider is still, well, on the outside.

What we need, at least in our little corner of the Kingdom, is not more churches, but an ugly Church. An ugly Church that will dispense grace and hot soup or offer love and a listening ear. An ugly Church that will practice hospitality on a street corner or in the poorest homes. An ugly Church that is comfortable with discomfort, amenable to awkwardness, and courageous in its compassion. What we need is an ugly Church that will not just meet in the neighborhood, but will make itself an integral and indispensable part of the neighborhood.

I would really love see all these churches unified in getting ugly. It means that each church must set aside its personal agenda for a kingdom agenda, to stop worrying as much about growing their church as growing the Church. I’m certain that Jesus isn’t going to question me on budgets and butts in the seats when I have to give account for myself and those I have been entrusted to lead. Jesus makes that pretty plain in Matthew 25:31-46. When that time comes, being a goat doesn’t mean “greatest of all time.” It actually means quite the opposite.

I’m not sure how we get there, but it starts by prayerfully reaching out and having conversations. Many times, the conversations aren’t between pastors, but lay people with a common vision. We must have dialog, backed up with action. When Jesus prayed for His disciples, He prayed that they would be one. May that be our prayer, too.

-ADM

The Least

 ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ – Jesus

Would it be easier to see Jesus in “the least” around us if they bore the marks of His crucifixion in their hands and feet? Would we slow our steps to see Him as we pass by? Would we be compelled to place some change, a couple bucks, or even our hand on that scar?

In a recent Bible study, we talked about Jesus healing touching and healing lepers, and listed the metaphorical lepers in our society: the homeless, poor, addicted, elderly, disabled, mentally ill… By aligning Himself with those our society deems undesirable, Jesus challenges us to love like He loves. It’s not a radical notion to say that if we want to call ourselves His disciples, we must find ourselves among the least and love them like Jesus.

So, where is Jesus hanging out in your neighborhood? Where is He inviting you to go? Who is He calling you to befriend? What “leper” is He desiring to touch through you? Do you see Him among the least?

-ADM

A Question of Metrics

Traditional metrics in the church measure the “Killer B’s”: budgets, buildings, and butts. Bigger budgets, better buildings, and bountiful butts in the seats are supposed to be hallmarks of successful ministry. Churches, regardless of size or resources, aspire to increase all three measurements. Personally, I’m required to submit a report every year that largely focuses on these areas.

But what if your ministry doesn’t fit the traditional mold? Where does the pancake breakfast at the low-income housing complex fit in? Or the sidewalk conversations by the methadone clinic or the corner store? Or the hot lunch provided to the local homeless drop-in center and breaking bread with the folks there?

Last Sunday, we didn’t measure our gathering by how many people attended or how much money was put in the offering plate. Instead, it was measured by nips, needles, bottles, and (cigarette) butts as we walked our neighborhood picking up trash and the artifacts of addiction and brokenness. For each a prayer was said, and we continue to hold our neighborhood in prayer. But these are different metrics that don’t generally reflect church growth.

An ugly church is more concerned with Kingdom growth. If people are experiencing the love of Jesus and meeting Him through His followers that’s success. If they never put a penny in the plate or darken the doorway of the church building, so be it. That means the church has to continue to go and be where they are. The Kingdom can break through in tenements or townhouses, countrysides or country clubs, on street corners or in state prisons. Success is not standing in our church buildings waiting for the world to come knocking. It won’t. And we’re not failures if the Kingdom expands but our particular congregation doesn’t. That’s a difficult adjustment if you’re tied to old metrics.

Personally, I think metrics are fluid. There isn’t a single rubric by which to grade all churches. Successful ministry can look very different, context to context. I think we should stop measuring our own churches by other churches’ yardsticks. If we’re obediently and faithfully following God’s will for our churches, let Him be the judge. Ask Him to provide the measurement of success for your particular context and let that be your guide.

-ADM

Why.

We reach out to the poor because we know what it’s like to be desperate; we reach out to the captives because we know what it’s like to be trapped; we reach out to the blind because we know what it’s like to be in darkness; we reach out to the oppressed because we know what it’s like to be crushed. We seek them out because it’s the mission of the One who was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities, Who took up our pain and bore our suffering, and by Whose wounds we are healed.

Excerpt from the book, Ugly Church

Ugly Church has Arrived!

Ms. Kyo Hee Im, pastor, author, benefactor and facilitator of Ugly Church getting published, shares about the book at a publishing party for her 7th book, titled Blessed Companion. We are grateful beyond words for her generosity and advocacy in seeing Ugly Church put into print.

We are working on getting Ugly Church converted to e-book for iTunes, Google Play, and Kindle. Stay tuned for updates on that front.

God’s goodness and provision never cease to amaze us. He is good!