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.
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.
‘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?
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.
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.
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!
As I write this, CEO (Chief Encouragement Officer) Elisha Cho is in South Korea working with the publisher to make the first 500 copies a reality. Soon we hope to have it converted to e-book and available for most common formats. We’re excited for what big things God may do through this little book!
They made quite an impression when they walked into church that Sunday morning. The patriarch of this motley family had untamed hair barely held hostage behind his head by a rubber band, a beard like an Old Testament prophet, his pant legs rolled up above his bare ankles and feet and his tie-dyed t-shirt exploded in color. He was followed by his wife, two sons and two daughters, all with hair rarely acquainted with brush or comb. The entire family was barefoot, the boys in patched pants and the girls in faded sundresses.
Had they walked into a church in their native upstate New York, they would have turned heads, but this was Appalachian Tennessee in 1979, where one dressed in his or her finest to attend church, even if that meant a dress shirt under overalls never worn for work. To be barefoot and unbathed was scandalous.
They arrived at this small country church located at the end of two tire tracks between hickory woods and farmland, not by accident, but by invitation. The pastor of this century-old clapboard church had a 1960 Volkswagen Beetle, and the only person in that part of the country who knew anything about VW’s happened to be a “hippie” from New York state. A relationship began over engine repairs and grew to a friendship between the pastor’s family–themselves transplants from Oregon–and this family of “misfits.” As a result of this friendship, the above scene of turned heads and raised eyebrows was made possible. And the church was better for it.
Even though I was only six when they came into my life, I have many fond memories of playing with the three older kids and staying at their house. They taught me volumes about hospitality and kindness. They taught me that no matter how poor you are, you are wealthy in the eyes of someone else. My brother and I attended school with the older kids and they became our best friends. Through their connection to the church and the acceptance that eventually blossomed there, they came to know Jesus. None of this would have happened if my dad had not been willing to make his congregation uncomfortable by inviting his VW mechanic and his family to church.
I would like to think that my childhood friends wouldn’t turn heads if they showed up in one of our churches today looking like they did in 1979. I like to think they would be instantly embraced and folded into the fellowship, but I don’t think that would be the case. Smudged faces, dirty nails, and the smell of patchouli and sweat would make many of our folks uncomfortable. The temptation would be to lead with judgment instead of love, to build walls instead of bridges. My prayer is that we will get comfortable with the uncomfortable so that no one feels like they don’t belong.
Following Jesus is no joke. There’s a reason He tells those who would follow after Him to count the cost. Because there is a cost. (If discipleship costs you nothing, you’re not doing it right). Recently, I’ve hit a wall. Between the church I pastor and the homeless shelter I manage, I have two 24/7 jobs. Somewhere in there my wife expects to have a husband that is more than a charred cinder. This isn’t the life Jesus has called me to, but it’s the season He has me going through. And I’m tired—wicked tired, as we say in New England.
Sometimes we have to be brought to the end of our ropes to realize our great need for God’s sustaining strength and grace. Every day as my feet hit the cool morning floor and my eyes crack open, the emptiness of my tank reminds me that I need Him desperately. There’s no other way to survive the day. And this is true even when the demands of life and ministry aren’t kicking me in the teeth.
On our last trip to Ireland, I picked up a tiny replica of a stone hut used by early monks. It sits at the base of my computer reminding me not to forget the monastic elements of my spiritual life in the busyness of the missional. For those of us that do, it can be really hard to just be. The inflow has to power the outflow. We have to be poured into in order to pour into the lives of others. As much as Jesus engaged the multitudes, He was also ducking the crowds to get a little one-on-one time with His heavenly Father. We need to stop feeling guilty about being still before God as if our personal spiritual health is a selfish endeavor. Without the be, there’s little quality do.
As you go about the business of Jesus’ mission, beware the wall. Don’t forget where your strength and stamina come from. Pray for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit to empower you. Finally, take to heart this quote from Martin Luther: It is a good thing to let prayer be the first business in the morning and the last in the evening. Guard yourself against such false and deceitful thoughts that keep whispering, “Wait a while. In an hour or so I will pray. I must first finish this or that.” Thinking such thoughts we get away from prayer into other things that will hold us and involve us till the prayer of the day comes to naught.