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.


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?


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.



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!

Ugly Church Stories: Hippies and Hillbillies

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.


Hitting a Wall

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 tiredwicked 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.


Defining “Ugly Church”

An ugly church can meet in a cathedral, a multi-million dollar facility, in a ‘60s era church building resembling an upside-down ark, a storefront, or under a highway overpass.  It is not defined by where it meets, nor the size of its building or bank account. They can be found in the grittiest urban core, the remotest Native American village, the wealthiest beach-side community and the most common suburb.   It is not defined by its appearance or its location. It is defined by its adherence to the mission and message of Christ. It is defined by closely following the steps of its scandalous Savior. In short, the Church should be found where one would expect to find Jesus if He were walking the earth here and now,  and filled with the people for whom His heart broke.

An ugly church is both welcoming to the outsider and outcast, and also present in the margins and fringes. It’s hard for a church to get truly and honestly ugly while keeping a clubhouse mentality.  It’s the rare church, in my experience, that would overtly shun the smelliest, dirtiest, hopeless “sinner” that darkens the door, but just as rare are those seeking them out. The ugly church is one that is not only sent but goes.  As Christ’s body, it goes into the world, to the dark and desperate places where we would expect to find Jesus.  And it does so, not in condescension and pity, but in humility and compassion. An ugly church is full of people who know where they came from and from what they were saved.  

As I look at my own congregation, I ask myself, “Would Jesus come to this church?  Would He fit in here, or would He–and His unwieldy and reckless love–feel out of place?”  What I’m really asking is, “Are we an active part of His church?  Do we love others in the neighborhood and community around us in the same unwieldy and reckless way He loves us?”  

The more I look around, the more I see Jesus in places the pretty church is too reluctant to go.  I see Jesus driving a young man to the free clinic, praying with a heroin addict on a street corner, and kneeling with an immigrant on a sidewalk.  Most often these days, I see Him hanging out on the corner across from a boarded up convenience store where the addicted, broke, and broken congregate.  Occasionally, His Church shows up to offer a meal or a word of encouragement. Too rarely does it stay to find out about Patty’s sister who overdosed (and Patty’s own losing battle with alcohol), or listen to Raymond’s rambling stories, or how Kyle is dealing with his cystic fibrosis while living on the street.  Too few stick around to celebrate Rinaldo’s green card and new job, or Jannatil’s GED diploma. Too few are willing to engage for the long haul, to befriend and live in relationship with them, to not say a single prayer in passing but to prayerfully and purposefully love them on an ongoing basis.

The ugly church doesn’t just engage in “drive by” missions or evangelism.  It doesn’t swoop into low-income communities with turkeys on Thanksgiving or backpacks at the beginning of a new school year, only to return to its comfortable cloister elsewhere.  It doesn’t just collect food for the hungry, but intentionally breaks bread with them. The ugly church chooses to “live by” those that others would rather “drive by.” My friend, Kurt Gerrold, who is best described as a street pastor, sums up the ethic of the ugly church: “to go where no one wants to go, to be with people no one wants to be with.”  It’s especially the “be with” that sets the ugly church apart.

Even though I’ve been talking about poorer communities, “ugliness” and brokenness exist even in well-heeled neighborhoods.  There are families going through divorce, disability, and bankruptcy. There are families with teenagers addicted to pills and pornography.  There are families struggling through chronic illness or trying to figure out how to parent a child with special needs. When debts and doubts mount, or it becomes unbearable to lie and respond to every “how are you” with “fine, thanks”–is the Church the first place to find solace?  Or is it a place to avoid until things get better? Being human is messy business and we’re compelled to keep our messiness to ourselves and avoid that of others. An ugly church, in contrast, wades into the mess with love, humility, and understanding. After all, it’s what Jesus would do.